Putting aside her fragrant memoirs, Cheri and The Last of Cheri are probably Colette’s finest achievement as a writer; they lucidly express her faith in materialism as well as her convincing belief that sensuality is the highest of all human pursuits. These two novels about an aging courtesan and her devouring passion for a young pretty boy are many things, but most of all they are French to their core, and the rude English narration that begins Stephen Frears’s adaptation of Cheri strikes a jarring note right from the start. The Belle Epoque clothes look as luscious as pastries and the décor is properly sumptuous, but the scenes are paced in such a jerky way that the film seems like it was slapped together too quickly. In her first major film role in what feels like a very long time, Michelle Pfeiffer gives an uneven performance as Lea de Lonval, a part once earmarked for Jessica Lange, who has a producing credit on this film. At her worst, when she’s trying to be calculating, Pfeiffer makes her face into a weird mask of hauteur and reads her lines as if she were in a high school play, yet there are moments toward the end when she reaches a ravaged kind of emotion that recalls her best work from the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Unfortunately, she has to contend with a brutally miscast Kathy Bates, who overacts all over the place as a retired adventuress and mother to Lea’s beloved Cheri (Rupert Friend). Colette’s ruthless sensibility gets lost in what amounts to just another costume melodrama, and though she was never averse to crass commercialism when she was selling her books, surely she would be amused that this film version of Cheri is being sold as a kind of “cougar with her boy toy” romp. Cheri and Last of Cheri pay serious tribute to worldly pleasures as a sort of “fuck you” to death and evil and wrinkles on the brow, but you won’t feel even an instant of that kind of steel in this graceless movie.
Disclaimer: Because I inexplicably couldn't get Cheri to play on my DVD player of choice, it's possible that that the inky blacks and lousy, sub-protozoan shadow delineation revealed by my secondary player could be misleading. That said, the audio came through perfectly on the system; through the film is by and large a dialogue-driven affair, the audio track boasts some surprisingly subtle surround work that resonated nicely across the entire soundstage.
Two inconsequential deleted scenes, totaling all of two minutes, and a trivial making-of featurette in which Christopher Hampton praises Collette, Stephen Frears praises Michelle Pfeiffer, and everyone praises whores.
Cheri has its problems, and given the dubious video presentation on this DVD edition, now it has more.