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During France's belle époque before World War I, elegant cars, mansions, and servants defined the lives of les grandes horizontals, the courtesans of kings and millionaires. One of the most successful, Lea de Lonval, is approaching a certain age when an older associate, Charlotte Peloux, asks Lea to take on her 19 year old son, whom Lea has called Chéri since he was a child. They become lovers and, to their surprise, the relationship lasts six years. When it ends abruptly with a marriage his mother arranges to the daughter of another courtesan, Lea finds herself miserable. Has she fallen in love? If so, do she -- and Chéri - have any choices? Written by
When the project was in development during the 1990s, Jessica Lange planned to star as Léa de Lonval. See more »
In the closing credits, 'thanks' are given to France's national railway, the Societe National Chemin de Fer, known as the "SNCF". However the credits have the letters out of sequence, calling it the "SCNF". See more »
We may think ourselves familiar in this day and age with the notion that whores of every description can very easily achieve fame and fortune. But towards the end of the 19th century, there what came to be known in France as the "ballet park", a select group of courtesans, who became for a short period, the most celebrated and powerful women in the long history of prostitution.
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Stephen Frears has created some powerful and very well crafted movies: 'Dangerous Liaisons', 'My Beautiful Laundrette', 'The Grifters', 'The Queen', 'Prick up your Ears', 'Dirty Pretty Things', etc. One would expect that his experience in dealing with edgy issues would make him the perfect choice for adapting the famous French writer of 'naughty novels' - Colette - but somewhere in the flow of this production, perhaps in the Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the novel to screenplay, the original stories become perfumed and sanitized. And the reasons why this happened remain obscure.
The story is simple: courtesans in Paris must eventually retire form their lives of becoming wealthy through pleasing men of the higher class, and either they live out their lives in the luxuries of fluff or they must confront their aging and feel pangs of remorse as they end their lives alone, without a man to bolster them. Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) has been longtime 'friends' with Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), even to the point of nurturing Madame's son Chéri (Rupert Friend) as he approaches manhood. Madame asks Lea to 'polish' Chéri for other women and after what might have been a brief fling in Normandy, the young Chéri and the aging Lea fall into a six year relationship. But as Madame realizes she needs grandchildren, she eventually finds a proper girl Edmee (Felicity Jones) for Chéri to marry. The remainder of the story is how these two age-disparate characters adapt to the 'social rules' of La Belle Epoque, suggesting that even under extraordinary circumstances the power of love is an issue that must be confronted.
Despite the performances by Pfeiffer and Friend (and even the miscast Bates) the story feels somehow sterile. Perhaps it is the out of place use of a male narrator who gives the film an unnecessary feeling of being a documentary, or the somewhat overused musical score of Alexandre Desplat, or the emphasis on costumes that hardly add to the beauty of Pfeiffer as Lea that keep the production grounded. It is a pleasant enough film, but hardly a memorable one. Grady Harp
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