Michelle Pfeiffer is back, and her reappearance in "Cheri," her best role in quite some time, underlines not only how much she's been missed but also how much the world of film has lost by her absence.
Of course, Pfeiffer has not literally been gone in the seven years since her last substantial dramatic role in "White Oleander," but the parts she's taken on, while they may have been the best the movie business has seen fit to offer, have not done justice to her abilities.
For though she looks lovely, Pfeiffer, now 51, has gotten to that time of life that Hollywood regards as dangerous from a box office point of view. So it is more than a little pointed that "Cheri," directed by the always reliable Stephen Frears, happens to be about a woman whose increasing age is also problematic. Lea de Lonval is not a movie star, however; she's a courtesan on the cusp of retirement.
Taken from a pair of 1920s novels by Colette and set in the waning years of France's pre-World War I belle epoque, "Cheri" introduces us to a group of women collectively known as les grandes horizontals, high-class prostitutes who achieved wealth and celebrity but were unable to make friends or any kind of life outside their profession.
Pfeiffer's Lea is a member in good standing of this group, and at age 49 thinking of getting out of the game. "Is there anything in the world more wonderful," she says longingly to her maid, "than a bed all to yourself?"
But Lea reckons without the machinations of her frenemy and fellow courtesan Charlotte Peloux (Kathy Bates). Charlotte's 19-year-old wastrel son Fred (Rupert Friend), familiarly known as Cheri, is spending his life in nonstop debauchery and his scheming mother would like nothing better than to have Lea, who's known Cheri since he was a child, romantically take him off her hands.
This comes to pass, but to the astonishment of all involved, especially Lea and Cheri, this supposed brief affair lasts six years. It's only at this point that things get serious for our protagonists and, finally, for this examination of life and love among the professionally heartless.
For though it is written by Christopher Hampton, who won an Oscar turning "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" into "Dangerous Liaisons" for Frears and Pfeiffer in 1988, "Cheri" is sluggish at the start despite having a lot of things going for it.
As shot by the expert Darius Khondji, "Cheri" makes the most of its real-life French locations and settings (Alan MacDonald was the production designer), including airy Art Nouveau homes and brooding "Merchant Ivory: The Brothel Years" interiors. And it will not be a surprise that Pfeiffer looks just so in Consalata Boyle's elegant gowns.
Pfeiffer and Friend also have excellent on-screen chemistry. His role, that of the classic darkly brooding callow youth, is the more prone to cliche, but Friend, who played the caddish Mr. Wickham in the Keira Knightley "Pride and Prejudice," brings a welcome level of reality to his performance.
As for Pfeiffer, she has an aura around her throughout the film, an air of timeless beauty that is always welcome.
Yet all this aside, it is inescapable that the early parts of "Cheri" have a quality of banality to them, with both "that child will be the death of me" dialogue and uninvolving acting leading us to wonder what all the fuss is about.
But "Cheri's" plot takes an unlooked-for turn. Something happens to force Lea and Cheri to consider whether they've inadvertently entered into the most dangerous liaison of all, if they've broken the unspoken commandment in their world and actually fallen in love.
The resulting schemes and intrigues and the emotional dynamics that follow in their wake bring "Cheri" to life. They also add a deeper, more moving level to Pfeiffer's performance, as her character's sadness and confusion at the turns the relationship takes make Pfeiffer look ravaged and care-worn for the first time.
Especially effective in this vein are the wordless scenes that catch Lea unawares, with the camera alone seeing the despair and regret that she hides from the world. It's the kind of refined, delicate acting Pfeiffer does so well, and it's a further reminder of how much we've missed her since she's been away.
MPAA rating: R for some sexual content and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: In general release