"Staying with someone for six years is like following your husband to the colonies," observes Michelle Pfeiffer's courtesan character in Cheri. "By the time you come back, you've forgotten what to wear and no one remembers who you are."
It's one of many crisply, tartly period comedy-of-manners lines Pfeiffer's character gets to mouth—in English, although the movie is set in the Belle Epoque Paris of a 20th century not yet sundered by the Great War. And mouth she does, in an accent that wobbles from corn-fed Yankee girl to the much-missed patrician inflections of Patricia Neale or Grace Kelly, sometimes in the same sentence. But thank heavens for small blessings: Cheri, based on the novel of the same name and adapted for the screen by screenwriter Christopher Hampton, could have been two hours of Pfeiffer speaking with a phony French accent. And co-star Kathy Bates, too, for that matter.
One almost insists on authentic British accents for period fare, even when that period takes place in France. We marvel when British actresses act with convincingly Californian accents, but when one of our own starts putting on British airs we cry phony. Renee Zellweger (aka Bridget Jones) seems to be the sole exception to this rule—which otherwise, if nothing else, at least partially explains why Americans generally prefer Jennifer Aniston to Gwyneth Paltrow, who does a pretty fine posh British accent, but who also married the least appealing of British rock stars and named the child she begat with him Apple. That's no way for an American to act. Jennifer Aniston would never do that to a baby. Gwyneth Paltrow is, like, the ultimate exchange student coming home with an annoying, affected accent she pretends she just can't shake.
Anyway, for whatever reason, American accents almost always clash with the Art Nouveau decors and Merchant-Ivory manners of European period fare, making our very best thespians nonetheless poor choices for primly mannered productions in continental settings, except when playing characters specifically typed as Yankee vulgarians, e.g. Jessica Biel in Easy Virtue. We're just not up to the task somehow. It's impossible to accept Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates as enormously wealthy, high-society retired French prostitutes without the whole picture disintegrating into Merchant-Ivory Lite staged by American impostors. "350 francs for gasoline," Pfeiffer's courtesan complains in one of the moments that cruelly betray her voice training, "francs" rhyming gratingly with "thanks" or "yanks."
Bear in mind that the actors in Cheri who aren't Americans are mostly British, making Pfeiffer and Bates sound even more colonial. Josef von Sternberg used to mix accents freely in pictures like International House, effectively creating cosmopolitan microcosms that was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere at once. In Cheri the technique doesn't work; you feel kind of bad for Pfeiffer (who, to be fair, seems to be having a splendid time), and dread (or perhaps crave) the arrival of a Kristin Scott-Thomas or a Maggie Smith to deliver the death-blow to the provincial playacting.
You might think I'm making a mountain out of a molehill, here—that I should just get over the accents already. Listen, I really wanted to like Cheri, but the mishmash of accents set to random spin is only part of the problem. The movie isn't all that bad, but unlovable and lacking in charm. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, and all lack a certain depth and dimension. Director Stephen Frears has made some great movies with complex character studies (The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things), but here he seems to be in retreat, as though the folly of Cheri's Yanks vs. Brits casting dawned on him only once the cameras started rolling and precipitated a minor mental fugue.
Beyond just interfering with suspension of disbelief, the clash of accents often inhibits the necessary chemistry. Pfeiffer's courtesan falls in love with Bates' 19-year-old son, nicknamed "Cheri" (Rupert Friend), and he with her, but onscreen the actors playing the lovers sometimes appear to be doing so from separate sound stages. It all feels charmless and by-the-numbers. Pfeiffer herself looks spectacular (the lighting, which makes the 51-year-old look as though carved from a single length of ivory, also convincingly takes a decade off Friend's 28 years to make him look like a teenager), but what on earth does she see in this sniveling, foppish little brat Cheri? We never really get that, either.
Cheri opens with a great montage of antique photos and courtesan anecdotes, and closes with a long close-up of Pfeiffer looking in the mirror as the movie's peripatetic narrator makes an 11th-hour return to tie up the loose ends. It's the one startling, goose-flesh moment in a movie otherwise lacking in sinew, excitement, sensuality, chemistry—anything you might feel entitled to expect from a period romance. Nothing much between those appealing bookends.
So yes, it's Merchant-Ivory Lite, or rather an off-brand unsuitable for domestic consumption and so bound for the colonies: too British to be French, too American to be British and too scattershot and featherweight to resonate with anyone. Yes, Pfeiffer still looks fabulous, but this, too, is a casting stunt. In Colette's novel, her courtesan is robust and zaftig like Bates, not a porcelain doll, a barely-there willow. Just about everything in Cheri, it would seem, was somehow lost in translation.
Cheri continues at the Wilma Theatre.