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Darling, you were wonderful

The world of an ageing courtesan is made too seductive for its own good

Chéri (15)
dir: Stephen Frears

Asked by her maid what is ailing her, Léa de Lonval sighs: “Oh, you know. Age.”

Léa, a courtesan in early 20th-century Paris, is aware her best days are behind her. She doesn’t want to turn into one of her grotesque colleagues, who try to arrest the march of time with inches of slap and the company of escorts so young they practically have to be burped after each aperitif.

But Léa grimaces at the thought of pursuing other work. “This was my only place of business,” she murmurs, trailing a finger across her bed. “And my customers have all gone.”

The director of Chéri, Stephen Frears, and his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, respond obligingly with close-ups and lighting that are theoretically unflattering. But they cannot change the fact that Léa is played by Michelle Pfeiffer. A Bonnard hung in a shabby corner is still a Bonnard.

For a time, Léa has Fred, known as Chéri, the 19-year-old son of a fellow courtesan, Mme Peloux (Kathy Bates). Chéri (Rupert Friend) is an emaciated dandy seemingly on the verge of collapse, presumably under the weight of all that eyeliner, but he worships Léa. She enjoys doting on him, and never has to ask why he looks and sounds like a bad Rupert Everett impersonator, since Rupert Everett hasn’t been invented yet.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of the timelessness of love that we are surprised to discover, a mere 20 or so minutes after the couple’s first kiss, that six years have now passed. (Frears’s characteristic briskness often results in such jolts. A lovers’ tiff that begins at dinner is carried over to the bedroom with one cut, as though Léa and Chéri had simply been teleported there mid-sentence. Even the narration, which Frears delivers himself, has a gruff, impatient quality.)

Mme Peloux decides then that the lad’s education is complete, and arranges for him to be married. Léa pretends that her world is not caving in. Chéri is less stoical, and takes a vow of eternal pouting.

The film marks a reunion for Frears, Pfeiffer and the screenwriter Christopher Hampton, who collaborated 21 years ago on Dangerous Liaisons.

That was an intricate erotic thriller, in which a flutter of the eyelashes could represent a tactical move, whereas Chéri, adapted from the novel by Colette, contains entire sections where the main characters lounge around thinking about one another, or feign ardour so that misleading reports will reach the true object of their affection.

If Dangerous Liaisons was a chess tournament, Chéri is charades.

Frears has no trouble dramatising introspection, and one nimble use of film language in particular stands out. Léa is thinking of Chéri, who is on his honeymoon. She pictures him in a rose garden. Chéri, who is having sex with his bride, Edmée (Felicity Jones), imagines that he is in bed with Léa, at which point Frears cuts back to Léa, still dreaming.

The timing of the cut makes them appear to be communicating telepathically, with Edmée a mere technicality, an unknowing gooseberry. At least the poor lass later delivers a blunt put-down of her husband, who has been blathering on about how Léa says he has “sole-shaped” eyes. “I don’t want to know why your eye is shaped like a mullet!” she spits.

Edmée 1, Chéri 0.

The film’s problem is that the romance between Léa and Chéri is the least vital or vibrant element here. Everything going on around the lovers seems colourful, even when it’s supposed to be prohibitively tacky.

A thuggish-looking Tom Burke, as the dapper friend who accompanies Chéri to an opium den, is so charismatic that you can’t help wishing Léa had taken up with him instead.

Then there are the squawking courtesans who supposedly represent to Léa, and to us, a portent of what she could become. We’re meant to share her disgust at these bewigged mockeries of youth, but they’re the only people here having a blast.

What a roll-call: Kathy Bates, Harriet Walter, Anita Pallenberg, an excessively kohl-eyed Nichola McAuliffe, and Iben Hjejle, whose air-kisses aren’t even in the same postal district as their intended recipients.

Chéri is sensitively directed, with a playful score by Alexandre Desplat. But the gravity of Léa’s situation has perhaps not been fully conveyed if we find ourselves thinking that a girls’ night out with those reprobates would do her the power of good.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.