Cheri on DVD

Michelle Pfeiffer in the Beautiful Age

Dec. 31, 1969
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During the era known as the Belle Époque, the Beautiful Age, the corsets of Victorianism loosened. A caste of courtesans, elevated above the more proletarian prostitutes, traded sexual companionship with aristocrats and magnates for lives of bejeweled glamour. Such was the milieu of Colette’s 1920 novel Cheri, which reflected on an era already lost to war and upheaval. The film adaptation, shown briefly in Milwaukee last summer, is out now on DVD.

Director Stephen Frears and writer Christopher Hampton, who previously collaborated on Dangerous Liaisons, cast Michelle Pfeiffer as the story's protagonist. She is poised and charming as Lea, a courtesan who longs for the luxury of sleeping alone. Instead, she falls in love without realizing the depth of her emotion until her lover prepares to marry a much younger woman. The object of Lea’s desire is the title character (played by Rupert Friend), a boy as beautiful as a faun from the Ballets Russes. Selfish and abstracted, Cheri regards the world with a shrug and an occasional flash of Oscar Wilde wit. He is wealthy, the bastard son of an aged, retired courtesan who earned a fortune tending to Europe’s crowned heads. Cheri is also considerably younger than Lea.

The tone of Frear’s voice-over narration sounds at first like a fizzy champagne toast to fin de siecle decadence, but the story’s tone gradually grows serious, even darker, as it follows the rocky pathway where eroticism crosses into emotion. Cheri is beautifully mounted and filmed, its lilac-colored Art Nouveau settings mirroring the curves of human bodies intertwined. Even Lea’s fireplace opens like a pair of lips parting for a kiss.


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