Two decades ago, Michelle Pfeiffer starred as Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons, adapted by Christopher Hampton from the Pierre Choderlos de Laclos novel and directed by Stephen Frears. In that film, made when Pfeiffer was about 30, she played the guileless ingénue being batted around by Glenn Close’s older, scheming Marquise de Merteuil. Now, still stunning at 50, Pfeiffer has graduated to the Marquise-like role of Lea de Lonval in an adaptation of Colette’s novel Chéri—which has been written by Hampton and directed by Frears. Sadly, this pseudo-sequel lacks Liaisons’ bite, though it does feature a wholly unexpected sting in its tail.
If you’re not familiar with the novel, you may be surprised, as I was, to discover that Pfeiffer’s isn’t the title role. Chéri (Friend) is in fact a handsome and exceedingly young man, the only son of a once-renowned, now-retired courtesan, Madame Peloux (Bates, hamming it up). Despairing of her wealthy child’s smug indolence, Peloux tosses him to fellow aging hooker Lea de Lonval, figuring that a few months with this famously fickle woman will toughen him up a bit. Instead, the two embark on a torrid May-December affair that lasts six years, concluding only when Peloux opts to marry Chéri off to a girl his own age (Felicity Jones), at which point Lonval discovers a depth of emotion that she’d barely suspected.
Given that today’s female movie stars share the same grim fate as did courtesans of old, Chéri inevitably functions as a meta-meditation on Pfeiffer herself, concluding—as did Dangerous Liaisons—with the older woman gazing sorrowfully at her fading reflection. It’s a courageous performance in many respects, and it lends the film a topical flintiness that almost compensates for the fact that the central romance never quite catches fire. Friend seems amiable enough but lacks the necessary charisma, and Hampton and Frears, who perfectly captured Laclos’ gleeful cynicism, can’t seem to translate Colette’s essence; the film plays like a stereotypical costume drama, all surface affectation. And yet a bit of the author’s despairing worldview does sneak through—especially in the final seconds, when the pompous narrator’s final words (actually taken from Colette’s sequel, The End of Chéri) fall like a guillotine.