Twenty years on from their hugely successful Dangerous Liaisons, Michelle Pfeiffer, Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton reunite for another literary costume drama involving sexual intrigue and moral corruption.
There, however, the similarities end. Dangerous Liaisons, based on Laclos eighteenth-century epistolary novel about aristocratic decadence in the pre-revolutionary ancien regime, was full of passionate even melodramatic intensity. Chri, adapted from two Colette novels about high-class courtesans in early twentieth-century Belle Epoque Paris, is a much more restrained but still moving portrait of a demi monde in its twilight years before the First World War.
Director Frears himself provides an urbane voice-over narration, at the beginning setting the socio-historical context of the courtesans who gained much wealth and power from the mid-nineteenth century by becoming the mistresses of royalty and aristocracy, then occasionally intervening to give a wider authorial perspective to the action.
The story follows the bittersweet affair between La (Pfeiffer), a still-beautiful but retired courtesan in her late forties, and Chri (Rupert Friend), the 19-year-old spoilt and dissolute son of fellow courtesan Mme Peloux (Kathy Bates), whom she is tutoring in the ways of love until the time is right for him to marry someone nearer his own age.
But what starts as a purely practical temporary arrangement turns into a six-year relationship in which both partners are in love without admitting it to themselves. When Mme Peloux finally arranges for Chri to wed Edme (Felicity Jones), the young virginal daughter of another rich courtesan, he and La are forced to confront their true feelings as life becomes unbearable without each other.
Thanks to Frearss subtle direction, Hamptons skilful adaptation and understated performances, Chri is a classy period piece with a quietly elegiac undertow, even if it seems a little too tasteful at times and rarely sets the pulse racing. Its two main themes are the danger of getting emotionally involved in a ruthlessly commercial world and the cruel reality of the ageing process. La and Chri are both products of the skin game where bodies are sold for money, so mixing love and sex is bound to end in tears. And Las eventual painful recognition that she has to let go of Chri is like a tacit acceptance that she is moving into the autumn of her life, while for Chri it is part of growing up into manhood.
The carefully composed cinematography of Darius Khondji makes the film very easy on the eye, helped greatly by Alan MacDonalds meticulously detailed production design (for example, contrasting Las graceful Art Nouveau city apartment with Mme Pelouxs lavishly but vulgarly furnished country house) and Consolata Boyles beautiful costumes, while Alexandre Desplats classical score adds to the reflective mood.
Pfeiffer delivers one of the best performances of her career as a self-made, refined woman who has always been in control of her life until now, when she makes the mistake of falling in love with a much younger man. Her unsentimentally sympathetic La is an appealing mixture of jealousy and generosity, suggesting the heavy emotional price that her material success has brought. Friend cuts a suitably androgynous Wildean figure as Chri, a weak-willed playboy infantilized by his mother and La, but it is difficult to sympathize with someone so narcissistic. Bates provides much comic relief as the bitchily tasteless Mme Peloux, while Jones is the much put-upon Edme without much say in her own life.
Chri is certainly a well-crafted film which is a sensual pleasure to watch but, bearing in mind Colettes seedy setting, its smooth stylishness could do with a bit more sleazy roughness to make it really compelling. Maybe one to watch on DVD rather than in the cinema.