The last time Stephen Frears directed Michelle Pfeiffer in a Christopher Hampton script, the outcome was Dangerous Liaisons: a film that thrust a hot poker up the literary costume drama and somehow made John Malkovich sexy.
Two decades on, the same talent serve up something far less heady. Compared to the quadruple-espresso injection provided by Liaisons’ conniving aristocrats, Chéri is like a mug of Horlicks – a bit of steam on top but nothing to trouble your heart rate.
Which isn’t to say the film doesn’t deliver its share of indulgent pleasures. In its Colette-authored tale of the eponymous rake (Rupert Friend) and his uneasily navigated path between insufferable mother (Kathy Bates) and older lover (Pfeiffer) – rival courtesans past their sell-by and living lives of lonely leisure – Chéri revels in the claustrophobic lives of a rich, cynical breed with little to occupy their time apart from peacock-strutting and bitchy broadsides.
Yes, the parlour games burden Chéri with a stagebound ambience but they also allow Hampton to dispense a healthy quota of cracking stingers and Frears to bask in the period’s silky-smooth detail.
The opposite of her pained, devotional Madame de Tourvel, Pfeiffer sinks her teeth into Lea de Lonval, although she (and the audience) probably wishes there’d been more meat on the bone. Still, she’s a compulsive act to watch, swanning about in ridiculous hats and sharpening her talons on former sex-worker competitors. Where Chéri suffers is in its doomed central romance.
Pfeiffer has magnetic moments as the older woman in lust with youth, but it’s impossible to give a fig for Friend’s bland, spoiled brat-boy. When Bates railroads Chéri into an arranged marriage, his torment generates as much sympathy as you’d feel watching David Beckham shed tears over not being able to flee LA Galaxy… in other words, zero.
This reunion of Dangerous Liaisons talent is a lighter, less demanding confection than its blistering predecessor. Languid delights come in the shape of Pfeiffer, Bates and some extraordinary hats, but the title character is a wash-out.