The whole Paleolithic movie universe, in which a leading man like Harrison Ford trudges through action films into his 60s while actresses like Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange are ”washed up” by the time they reach their mid-40s, might straighten itself out pronto if everyone were to go see Chéri. At 51, Pfeiffer has never — I mean it, never — looked more ravishing then she does as Léa, the fancy-free Paris courtesan of Colette’s 1920 novel and its sequel. The actress is twinkly and creamy-skinned; she makes Léa a glowing, knowing, temperamentally ageless coquette. But the real freshness of her performance is that, in a movie that has Léa involve herself with a much younger man — the louche, gullible Chéri (Rupert Friend), who’s the wealthy son of one of her courtesan colleagues (Kathy Bates) — Pfeiffer transcends any hint of cliché ”cougar” voraciousness.
These two lovebirds are playfully mismatched, and that’s just why they fall for each other. So when Chéri chooses, unwisely, to exit their romance for an arranged marriage, Léa plots to woo him back — by feigning merry indifference. And that, more or less, is the entire movie. Directed by Stephen Frears from a script by Christopher Hampton, Chéri is like Dangerous Liaisons (which Frears also directed) reduced to a tasty morsel, an anecdote of wily and deceptive love. It is, if anything, an overly slender movie, yet its images of Belle Epoque high life are delectably lush, and if there were more to the story, it might not have such a delicate charm. Pfeiffer makes Léa that rare thing, an angelic schemer, and Friend, who was one of the supporting weasels in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice, proves a leading man of perverse fascination. As Chéri, he’s like a decadent cross between Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, with a puckish dimple of a mouth and a pose of snobbery that never quite conceals the heartache beneath it. He’s the entitled aristocrat next door. B+