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Gigi it’s not. The piquantly wry take on high-end Belle Époque French life that animated Colette’s novel, and the Vincente Minnelli movie musical it inspired, is moderately evident at the beginning of Stephen Frears’ adaptation of another, earlier Colette work about the same period. But it soon gives way to a more astringent, vulgar, and skeptical view of the voluptuously self-indulgent protaganists. The joke is on these two in Chéri, but it’s not by any means a funny one.

The title character (Rupert Guest) is a very young, intensely pleasure-seeking son of a retired courtesan (Kathy Bates, trying hard but rather out of her element) who asks the youth’s godmother, Léa (Michelle Pfeiffer), to intervene for his own good. Léa’s reluctant attempt to oblige quickly precipitates a six-year-long affair between them, at which juncture Chéri thoughtlessly accedes to his calculating mother’s wish that he marry the 18-year-old daughter of a rich former colleague.

Neither he nor Léa admits to the other any sense of great loss, but her stricken response when she’s alone and his grim bearing during the wedding give the game away with little fuss or surprise. What follows is a descent into quiet personal torments and sentimental tragedy. Both of these practical amatory cynics learn about love tragically late.

Chéri reunites Pfeiffer, Frears, and writer Christopher Hampton more than two decades after they worked together on Dangerous Liaisons, but the feel and insights of Colette’s little novel seem to have eluded them. Their movie is an efficiently streamlined version of a work that proceeds methodically and with a pointed Gallic irony. Early on, the filmmakers lean a little too heavily on a tone of dry romantic comedy, and in the second half they don’t really convey the emotional trauma adequately.

Pfeiffer’s Léa is a bit too unknowing and vulnerable, and although Guest is petulantly and impetuously persuasive, Frears hasn’t given us much room to develop sympathy for his plight. The portrayal of emergent emotions that surprise the ill-starred couple is too cursory and flat. When the movie relies on a narrator at the very end to summarize Colette’s sequel (The Last of Chéri) and the significance of what we’ve just sat through, the absent qualities are only underlined.

george sax

Watch the trailer for Chéri

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