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Review: 'Chéri'

Promoted as a frisky comedy, this film set in La Belle Époque delivers a great deal more.

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Michelle Pfeiffer has a career triumph in "Chéri" playing an aging courtesan. Aging has never looked so good. At 49, her Lea de Lonval realizes that her glory days, along with the waning hours of La Belle Époque, are over, and so, for sport, she decides to take up with a 25-year-old dandyish Adonis named Chéri (Rupert Friend). She plans to teach him a few things before sending him on his way. What she doesn't count on is that they will fall in love with each other.

Directed by Stephen Frears, written by Christopher Hampton, and based on two celebrated novels by Colette – "Chéri" (1920) and "The Last of Chéri" (1926) – "Chéri" is being promoted as a frisky comedy. It's a great deal more melancholy than that, though. Frears summed up Lea in an interview where he stated that "she's unnerving, as though being that beautiful contains its own tragic quality." The tragedy lies in what is being taken away. For a courtesan, whose face and figure are her fortune, the diminishment of beauty is especially burdensome. But Lea's masklike radiance in this film transcends youthful allure. She's more mysteriously beautiful than ever. This is what Frears was aiming for – the incandescence of the tragic – and it is what Pfeiffer so movingly conveys.

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