Pfeiffer plays Lea de Lonval, the protagonist, who is the most influential of her generation of grandes horizontals, most of whom have now "retired". She is considering it as well, but hesitates, perhaps because she sees that the other members of her circle have decayed into a collection of more or less grotesque crones who only reminisce about their past conquests. Lea, who still possesses grand beauty and fabulous taste (as expressed in her smashing Belle Époque wardrobe and magnificent Art Moderne townhouse) grasps at the compromise offered her by friend Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), which is to take up Peloux's son, Freddy (a.k.a. the "Chéri" of the title) (Rupert Friend), who is a handsome and dashing nineteen years old. The story tells us that the courtesan's son has been living a life of debauchery since he was sixteen, and his mother wants to save him from worse things. Both Lea and Cheri enter into the relationship willingly, and spend the next six years in an idyl, dividing their time between Lea's Paris house and her Normandy estate. (One rather fantasy element of the plot is that Lea and her friends all seem to have invested their earnings wisely, and are all comfortably rich, if not more so--.)
The long dream comes to an end when Madame Peloux decides that the next stage in raising her son is for him to marry, and she announces that she has arranged a marriage for him with the sheltered daughter of another compatriot, the not-yet-retired Marie Laure (Iben Hjejle). Putting supposed logic ahead of love, Lea and Chéri agree to his wedding young Edmee (Felicity Jones).
How events unravel to an unhappy end is the substance of the plot, which is well acted by Pfeiffer, Friend, and Jones, supported by the always interesting Bates and a cast of veteran European actors. The film is a visual treat, lushly photographed on locations in Paris, Biarritz, and sites in Germany, which probably stood in for Normandy. The dialog is witty and wicked, and there are some very tasteful sex scenes.
We enjoyed the film very much, and would recommend it for fans of art cinema. Obviously, the plot makes if appropriate for adults only: it carries an R rating, but it is a "soft" R.