Granted, Michelle Pfieffer is a well established life-thespian, and British veteran Stephen Frears works relatively free of the Hollywood handcuffs, but Cheri ends on a ten second close-up of Pfieffer's face that, while tragic in scene, is profound as a stand-alone frame, a naked image that confronts the audience with a feminine self-awareness not unlike the "I love you..." shot of Julianne Moore that closes-out Safe. Pfieffer's mouth & cheek lines and the noticeable sunken-in-ness around her eyes are almost shocking to see as we've been conditioned to expect that most our high-profile actresses will go out of their way to hide them.
It sounds as if I've making this whole "aging beauty" thing into a side issue of the film as a whole, but the fading away of youthful buoyancy is a central theme to Cheri. Michelle Pfieffer plays Lea, one of the most pronounced and pounced-upon prostitutes of the Belle Epoque era in pre-WWI France. Because this decadent era left the upper-crust so awash in disposable riches, even ladies working in the world's oldest profession could swing a high enough fee for their services. Though this work afforded them wealth in their retirement, we get the impression it was just as grueling and taxing as your more typical jobs would place on a twelve hour day hard-worker. In an opening salvo, Lea eases into her pampering cloud of a bed and moans to herself, "Is there anything more wonderful than a bed to yourself?". This may not be your traditional path to early retirement that the author of Rich Dad Poor Dad pushes, but you can't argue with the rewards.
But as with any demanding job, there are quality-of-life costs that may come with a career choice of leg spreading. One of those can be missing out on love, and another can be missing out on having children. Lea tries to reconcile both of those nagging birds with one stone by bagging the nineteen year-old Cheri, the privileged man-candy (yet of that very European androgynous variety) and son to one her prostitute friends Madame Peloux. Cheri was actually born "Fred", but was christened with that former rosy sounding nickname by Lea when he was still a child. In turn, Cheri branded Lea with the name "Nanoon", a nonsense word that nonetheless carries a maternal quality to it as in "Nana" or "Mema". It's more than a little off-putting when, on their first night of love-making, Cheri looks into Lea's eyes and whispers, "ohh Nanoon".
What's much more apparent and lingering in Cheri than, say, when David Fincher just passes-by it in Fight Club, is the social issue of men being raised by single women. No, Frears is not on any kind of probing or soap box mission here (his number one concern seems to be in telling and selling a story), but it's hard to ignore what is oh-so-out-in-the-open. When Cheri turns twenty-five, he is still being coddled and pampered by the woman he lives with. Lea pays for everything (even though Cheri has money), cleans-up after his messes, takes him shopping, and bathes him. All of this possibly relates back to Lea not having fulfilled her maternal instincts early in life, but it has coalesced into dependent man-child, a young fop of a lad with the moppy hair of a toddler. Again, there doesn't appear to be any intention of statement here from Frears, but rather just a bundle of behavioral complications that makes for an interesting character in Cheri.
In total, Cheri hasn't lingered with me as much as some of the little pieces that make it a complete whole, but that's not meant to be a dismissal. Like a trash novel or B-movie that doesn't hit on every point but still highlights moments more earnestly than some of its other well-respected peers, Cheri feels like it might have been an Oscar hopeful in its early stages of production, but let go of that ambition somewhere along the process. I think we (and it) are here, in the no-mans land award season of June, much better served because of that.