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Unrequited, Victorian Love

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Chéri is successful not necessarily in its execution or storytelling, but in the actors that adorn the screen. Stephen Frear’s (High Fidelity, The Queen) latest is definitely not the defining film of his career, but he does flex his muscles as a filmmaker and illustrates his abilities to draw out astounding performances from his actors. The film, which was adapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton (Atonement) from a Colette novel, meanders through the story of an unrequited May-December love affair during the beautiful Paris of the 1920s.

Failing to completely solidify as a romance, it’s the actors that are the true saviors of the picture. It’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s exquisite Lea de Lonval , an aging and semi-retired courtesan, and Rupert Friend’s ennui-laden Chéri, half Lea’s age, that form the core of the story. Growing up as the only son of Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates in just another seminal role), Chéri flows through life without much pleasure and without much care, looking for meaning in his young existence.

Lea, on the other hand, is enjoying her move into retirement as a single woman who enjoys the occasional male escapade. When the two begin a casual relationship it ends up lasting six years, much longer than either had anticipated. It’s only cut short due to a marriage Madame Peloux has arranged for Chéri. Unfortunately the end both knew would be inevitable, doesn’t feel as casual as it began. In a twist of events, it’s Chéri who initially holds the gaze of Lea, half her age, but it’s both who initially reject the idea of love, that slowly realize what it is.

What the film does best is to meditate on a time when love wasn’t essential to survival and both these characters are wholly ingrained in this tradition. However, it’s the realization that love is real that changes them. Friend and Pfeiffer do have an electric chemistry and the carefree Lea compliments the bored Chéri quite well. While Frears doesn’t craft a story that immediately stands out from the many other Victorian-era Parisian romances, he creates characters that command the full attention of their audience.