Based on the 1920 novel of the same name and its follow-up half a dozen years later, the film version of Chéri didn't seem to quite catch on in cinemas earlier this year. Reviews were, best that I can tell, fairly middling and the cries of those who felt Christopher Hampton's adaptation wasn't faithful enough to the original stories done by Gigi author Colette seeped out in predictable fashion. While it may be true that Chéri doesn't carry the weight of one of the previous collaborations between Hampton and director Stephen Frears - Dangerous Liaisons, which also had in common star Michelle Pfeiffer - and possibly even failed to perfectly capture the tone of the source material (or not, I couldn't say nor particularly care), I found the film to be a nonthreatening exercise in how to make an accessible and mild early 20th century costume drama set in Paris (though nary a French accent is heard). It's exceptionally well-made, photographed with an emphasis on ornate beauty by Darius Khondji and given an impeccable score by Alexandre Desplat. Frears' direction is as bland as one would figure but effective in his usual chameleonic way while the screenplay emphasizes cold, dry wit in between the characters' frequent attempts to damage each other.
If nothing else, Chéri must be commended for giving Pfeiffer, who seems to act far too infrequently nowadays, a strong and prominent role deserving of her presence. She has one scene as Lea, the whore or, if you will, courtesan who enjoys nice things, that unfortunately goes down in flames as she yells out the young Chéri's name in such a forced manner as to make it either comedic or just uncomfortable, but her performance is generally effective, if not quite as layered as it should be. In playing Lea, Pfeiffer had the task of building a relationship with the much younger Fred, also known as Chéri and played like a gaunt brat by Rupert Friend, into a full-fledged romance and affair which is quickly over as soon as it starts in the film but actually lasts six years. The central premise is that she needs him far more than she's willing to let on. Lea is not shown to have any children and she's slowly losing the beauty she needs to maintain such a lavish existence so Chéri serves as a youthful lover capable of pleasing her while still inexperienced enough to welcome Lea's mothering.
Conflict arises when Chéri's actual mother Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), a friend and smiling enemy to Lea, arranges for her son to marry the unspoiled younger daughter (Felicity Jones) of another courtesan. Lea pretends she's not bothered, even lying that she has a new young lover and supposedly going away with him for an unspecified amount of time, but, privately, she's crushed. It's here where the film seems to get bogged down in a weepy mass of viewer indifference. Too much time is spent on the whims of unlikable and, even worse, uninteresting people. Frears and Hampton adopt a tone of cool, arm's length storytelling complete with a narrator (uncredited, but apparently Frears himself). Part of what I liked in Chéri was the objectivity of how everything unfolds prior to Lea's incremental breakdowns. It's enjoyable to see exaggerated nastiness play out amid these characters. But when the film tries to make us care for Lea I think it takes a misguided turn. Her superficiality had been unavoidable and any and all debauchery enjoyed by Chéri only added to the opinion of these two being made for each other in a less than sympathetic way.
By the time the viewer realizes that a real dose of tragedy is in store, the gravity that's supposed to be felt instead comes across as artificial. Hampton shows contempt for the characters but also wants the audience to develop a fondness for them. It misses the mark. Some of the complexity presumably found in Colette's original stories gets lost in the abridgment of the film. Otherwise, sufrace tensions play out as well as could be expected. A lightness comes through nicely, aided by the whimsy of the narration. Nothing lacks in either the visual or the aural. That Chéri features so much talent ensures it as an always enjoyable experience. Those averse to period pieces based on French literature could do far worse. The film seems to have different ambitions than something like Dangerous Liaisons, and I think it largely (yet modestly) succeeds. Here's Frears again showing a sort of malignancy of desperation in his characters. Perhaps people expected a larger ambition for Chéri. This is instead a short, light film that only gets bogged down when it tries to introduce a level of reflection for which it's not properly prepared. I found that it diverts well enough but doesn't really stick with the viewer.
Chéri comes to R1 DVD via Miramax. It was also released last month in the UK by Pathe Video. This NTSC version sports a 2.35:1 aspect ratio in anamorphic widescreen. The progressive transfer handles the darker interiors quite well and particularly excels in brighter, more colorful outdoor scenes. Minor noise is present but never problematic. Detail is maybe less sharp and revealing than one might prefer, though it too is nothing worth whining over considering the overall quality of the image.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is equally strong, allowing Alexandre Desplat's score to breathe well enough. Similarly, dialogue is easily understood without issue and at a consistent volume. Subtitles are available in French and Spanish, plus English for the hearing impaired. They are yellow in color.
Bonus features are meager. Two short deleted scenes last two minutes total, with the first going just twenty seconds. A making-of featurette (8:50) is also a brisk watch. It features director Frears, screenwriter Hampton, and actors Pfeiffer and Friend, among others, discussing the usual conception and production aspects of the project. It's basic, but so brief as to be easily and painlessly digested.
Probably the longest collection of additional material timewise can be found in the Sneak Peeks section. Previews for Miramax Films, Lost, Old Dogs, the 10th Anniversary Edition of 10 Things I Hate About You, and Legend of the Seeker are available. You can also see trailers for Everybody's Fine and The Proposal, along with an anti-smoking spot and an advertisement for Blu-ray, upon inserting the disc.