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
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 "Belle Epoque", 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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One of the delights of this film is the lushness and perfection of the sets and costumes of the Belle Époque (c. 1890-1914). The sets and costumes are so gorgeous they threaten to overwhelm the actors. Threaten, but don't succeed. Michelle Pfeiffer is sensual and beautiful as the aging courtesan Leaa woman approaching a "certain age," as the narrator (Stephen Frears) informs us. Lea has known the love and admiration of the wealthiest men in Europe, many of them titled. She has been wise to keep her heart out of her affairs. Then Fred, ("Cheri") the son of another courtesan (Kathy Bates) enters Lea's life, and she finds herself caring for the aimless but charming young man more than she should.
Kathy Bates is wonderful as Madame Peloux, a former competitor of Lea'sa woman who, if you squint hard (and catch the "portrait" of a younger Peloux) you can imagine having a gamine charm years before. Bates' acting moves effortlessly from laughing delightedly at smutty gossip to quickly assuming the pouting self-righteous expression of a disapproving mama as she discusses her son. From former courtesan to bourgeois matron in the blink of an eye. Bates carries this quick switch act off several times in the movie, and it's a pleasure to watch her skill at these rapid changes. The sets and costumes of Mme. Peloux, heavy 2nd Empire furnishings, stiff wired dressed with bustles, are beautifully contrasted with Lea's lighter lookslender, graceful, light. The clothes each character wears, and the styles of their respective homes, gives some subtext to the story. Mme. Peloux, a bit older than Lea, had her taste formed in an era of overdone stuffy pretentiousness, while Lea, a bit younger, has embraced the airy beauty of Art Nouveau.
The stultifying life of aging and former courtesans is well-depictedunwelcome in respectable society they have to fall back on each other's company. Former competitors, they still can't help sniping at one another. Lea, as one of the youngest of the group, moves like a sylph among the faded charms of her cohort. One amazing scene: Among a bower of faded courtesans, one of them, a busty brassy red-head, cuddles and squeals like a teenager as she introduces her lover, a young man who's the son of one this woman's "official lovers." As she overwhelms the rather weedy young man with her caresses, the viewer can see Lea's discomfortseeing the loud red-head and her boy lover seems like seeing a grotesque mockery of herself and Cheri.
Cheri, the title character, is played by Rupert Friend (Prince Albert in "The Young Victoria," and Mr. Wickham in the 2005 version of "Pride and Prejudice"). He's a young man who has only two responsibilities: marry, and manage the large amount of money his mother settles on him at his marriage. He's a young man without purpose, but finds love with Lea. What starts as a light-hearted affair turns into a relationship both Cheri and Lea need more than they realized. Lea and Cheri's affair endsas does the wonderful era depicted in this gorgeous movie. The war ends Lea and Cheri's world. The 20th century starts with bleakness and hardness after the golden afternoon of La Belle Époque. We are indebted to Collette and Stephen Frears for showing us the loveliness, and even the artful decadence, of that time, and we are indebted to the talented cast for giving life to the "demi-monde" ("half-world") of that era.
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