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Cheri (2009)

Miramax Films
DVD Released: 10/20/2009

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/19/2009

It's sad when a movie has two strikes against it, especially when the "play" button has just been pushed. However, critics are human beings too (despite what everyone says) and sometimes we can't help but bring our own personal biases into the ring. Poor Cheri had a deficit before it had barely started. First of all, I'm not a fan of period pieces -- stories set in the past often bore me. Secondly, and this is going to sound quite weird, I don't like period pieces set in the high society of the 18th, 19th, or early 20th century. While there are certainly poverty-stricken and destitute in our society today, things were much more grim for the poor during those times, and seeing the elite in movies brings me down. Is there any way that Cheri could win me over given all of this?

Cheri is set in France during the "Belle Epoque", a period in the late 19th century and early 20th century which was the heyday of the upper class. At that time courtesans were quite popular. These were "kept women", who were not unlike prostitutes. But, instead of simply having sex with their gentleman callers, they would have ongoing relationships. These women lived in the lap of luxury and made a nice salary. However, due to the social outlook on their "profession", they often kept to themselves and only socialized with others in their circles. Lea de Lonval (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a beautiful and popular courtesan who has done quite well for herself. She often visits fellow courtesan Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates). The two aren't really friends, but they keep each other company. Madame Peloux has a nineteen year old son named Fred (Rupert Friend). Lea has known him for many years and she calls him Cheri. Cheri is a ne'er-do-well who lives off of his mother's money. Lea decides to take Cheri home with her for a romp. However, this short tryst turns into a relationship which lasts many years. When Madame Peloux decides that it's time for Fred to marry, the relationship between Lea and her Cheri is torn apart.

Cheri comes to us from Director Stephen Frears who visited a similar world, and also worked with Pfeiffer, in 1988's Dangerous Liaisons. Like that film, Cheri takes us on a tour of the rich, powerful, and beautiful of a foreign country in the past. We observe, awestruck, these people who live in large houses filled with treasures and servants. The movie shows how these people have to go out of their ways to amuse themselves, and as one character says, "There's no one as busy as the man who has nothing to do." Of course, this sort of free time always leads to trouble.

While we've seen this sort of thing many times before, the thing which makes Cheri unique is how it focuses almost exclusively on female characters. Not only that, but powerful female characters. The courtesans are an interesting lot, for the successful ones apparently became independently wealthy, something which I can only assume was rare for a woman who wasn't royalty or an heiress. This gave the woman a bravado, which, again, I assume was rare at that time. And while they were always exquisitely dressed and acted with the best of social graces, they weren't intimidated by men. We see Lea and Madame Peloux essentially leading the lives which they choose two and, in Lea's case, taking a lover when she sees fit.

It's implied that in the course of their work, the courtesans learn to be emotionally distant. That is also the problem with this movie. While I found the story interesting, it was never very involving. Going in, I knew nothing about the movie, so I was surprised to learn that it was about an affair between an older woman and a younger man. This was interesting, and along the way, there are some nice turns (they're not really "twists" mind you) in the plot. However, it all feels very cold and hollow. This may be due to the restraint shown in the performances. As one would expect, Kathy Bates is very good, and I don't think she knows how to hold back. Michelle Pfeiffer must get kudos for playing a woman who has to face the fact that she's getting older, but she seems bored at times. While his performance and appearance may be historically accurate (I'm not sure), Rupert Friend comes across as so effeminate as Cheri, that it actually took me out of the movie at times. The scene where heís parading around the bedroom in Leaís pearls is certainly an awkward one and it makes us wonder what she sees in him.

So, again, I apologize for my biases, but I did go into Cheri with a bad attitude. However, I soon found myself drawn to the film and the first half was charming. However, the second half of the film began to push me away, as it felt quite cold. Cheri is an intriguing look at a unique time in history and it just misses the mark.

Cheri lives a life of decadent boredom on DVD courtesy of Miramax Films. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp and clear, showing basically no grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look good, especially the abundance of mint-green in the film, and the image is never overly dark or bright. However, the picture is notably soft and lacks detail at times. The DVD features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Being a period drama, there arenít tons of audio effects here. There are some fine stereo effects, most notably in crowd scenes. These same scenes, as well as the in-film music, offer solid surround sound effects.

The Cheri DVD contains only two extras. "The Making of Cheri" (9 minutes) is a fairly standard featurette which offers comments from the cast and crew. They discuss the story, the cast, and the production without ever getting too technical or specific. The DVD contains two DELETED SCENES which run about 2 minutes. One is "blink and you'll miss it" brief, while the other shows another tumultuous scene with Lea and Cheri.

Review Copyright 2009 by Mike Long