Can a movie hang its success on a set of cheekbones? Thank the heavens for the luminous Michelle Pfeiffer’s because without them Cheri, director Stephen Frears’s first feature film since The Queen, would be nothing more than a transient retread of Dangerous Liaisons.
Indeed all the familiar parameters are in place: unrequited love, the scheming matronly type (Kathy Bates standing in for Glenn Close), the virginal victim, well-camouflaged comments aimed at the jugular, bustles and opulent architecture. But Cheri begs the question… Where’s the flesh and blood?
Set in 1906, Cheri (Rupert Friend) is a handsome, petulant playboy already tainted by too much of the good life. After accepting a seductive invitation from family friend and former courtesan Lea De Lonval (Pfeiffer) to accompany her to her villa for a vacation where Cheri indulges in more of that good life, romance and passion follow quickly. Cleverly intercepted by Cheri’s mother (also a former courtesan) Madame Peloux (Bates) who arranges a union far more appropriate, Cheri heads off to a lustless life, leaving Lea heartbroken and in carnal need.
It’s hard to believe after the seamless sophistication of The Queen, Frears would let something this banal out of the gate. Aside from the lack of much needed fiery passion, what audiences will have trouble with here is Cheri’s fixation on Lea and indeed vice-versa. As played by Pfeiffer, an ageless beauty absolute and just exquisite in every frame, Lea’s demeanour is near lifeless and while Pfeiffer does the best she can in a dangerously underwritten role, there’s something distant about her approach. Friend, whose cheekbones rival his leading lady’s, imbues Cheri with nothing beyond a slender physique and piercing eyes. There’s an awful transience about the whole affair with detail lacking in every personality we meet. Bates, who can make opening a can of spaghetti interesting, smiles gleefully as she upsets her son’s love affair and rolls her enormous eyes with joy as her scheme (a very slight one) comes to fruition. And as for that final shot, fans of Dangerous Liaisons will probably stare in disbelief.