Maybe it's a sign of the post-traumatic American times that distributors are treating the public to nice, temperate, and restrained British costume dramas lately. Earlier this month, Sony Pictures Classics unrolled Easy Virtue, a comedy of manners from that paragon of wartime British poise Noel Coward--something light and fun that seemed to hedge its bets that post-Bush moviegoers' mood was most akin to the escapist niceties of 1950s British theater, a point that's hard to argue in the wake of the massive success of Star Trek and The Hangover. In the face of Terminator's nihilism and Angels & Demons' pompous fear-mongering, the box office weather report lately is sunny, with a chance of drunkenness.
Cheri continues the nostalgia for what British theater critic Kenneth Tynan coined "Loamshire" plays, middle-class dramas that challenge neither the establishment nor the depths of human passion. It takes a prim-and-properness that few Americans can fathom to make an R-rated film about a hooker and her lover and not display heaps of sweat-covered skin, but that's the headspace that master Stephen Frears (The Queen) inhabits in Cheri. Michelle Pfeiffer plays semi-retired 1920s Parisian courtesan Léa de Lonval, a woman of high class in a low business content to live out her life sipping tea with other former ladies of the night, specifically her friend Madame Peloux (a hysterical Kathy Bates, whom Frears lets off the leash with relish). Apparently on a whim, Lonval takes Peloux's young son as a lover. Chéri, as she pet-names him, is no angry young man; more like petulant little boy, which works fine for Lonval, who makes no attempt to tame him.
After years in each other's arms, it is time for Chéri to take a wife, an arrangement that forces Lonval and Peloux apart. When neither one is able to move on, they commence a dance of jealousy that only hurts those around them.
But they do so nicely. It is hard to convey just how inoffensive this drama allows itself to remain. There are moments of Sirkian melodrama and hints of Frears' own Dangerous Liaisons scheming, but mostly Cheri is happy to chug along looking pretty. Pfeiffer's glamour is still captivating, and the casting of Rolling Stones' muse Anita Pallenberg as the operator of a sultry opium den is perfectly juicy. But all the frilly hats, teasingly lit sex, and delicious turns of phrases can't inject this adaptation of Colette's novel with enough drama to sustain its already tight running time. Nor does it justify the absurdly epic score by Alexandre Desplat, who apparently did not get the memo that Americans are ready for fluff again--or so says the movie business.