She's a leading Paris courtesan, that high-class brand of prostitute that had its heyday before the telephone created "call girls."
He is the son of a friend, a vain pretty-boy given to "debauchery" - wine, women, and opium.
She knew him as a child and was the one who gave him the nickname Cheri. He grew up calling her "Noo Noon." And even though she is "of a certain age" and contemplating retirement, he is smitten, or as close to smitten as he allows.
Cheri, based on a novel by the French writer Colette, is a sumptuous but only rarely romantic romance set in France during the belle epoque just before World War I. Despite having Michelle Pfeiffer playing Lea, a fading beauty in all her self-aware glory, Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons) loses himself in the dazzling dresses and stunning hats and loses the sting of a failed romance, the longing of a lovesick older woman, the callow youth who comes to realize the love he has lost.
The wit comes from the inversion of the characters - the 50ish woman who doesn't draw the stares that her absurdly pretty 19-year-old toy boy (Rupert Friend of Pride & Prejudice) does. The story's sting is in the defense mechanisms they both employ. He's been a wastrel, and being the son of retired courtesan Charlotte (Kathy Bates, well cast) he has no morals or scruples. Lea has always taken lovers who could afford to support her. Until Cheri.
But Mother Charlotte wants grandchildren and arranges a suitable marriage for Cheri. Will their feelings finally come out?
Friend is all hair and cleft chin and pout, here, a blank slate. But he's Twilight gorgeous, so much so that you'd swear it's not makeup or lighting that makes Pfeiffer blush. The two don't have a lot of chemistry, and while each is adept at getting across that subtle suggestion of "I'm not going to give in to love," they don't give us any emotional release when they do give in.
Thus Frears and his Liaisons screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, give us a period piece in which the settings are fab, but the liaisons aren't dangerous, or even romantic.
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