Media talking points for the 1920s period romance Chéri cluster around how "brave" Michelle Pfeiffer's performance is. The aging actress plays an aging whore who has a six-year relationship with a man 30 years her junior. As she seduces her young beau, Pfeiffer is drop-dead gorgeous one moment, draped in the necessarily flattering costumes of a high-end French whore, and the next? The camera pries a little, gets a little too close, and suddenly signs of Pfeiffer's age jump into relief: Her eyelids are crepe-y. Her neck sags. Her arm wattles quiver.

Her character's relationship with pretty-boy youngster Chéri (Rupert Friend), the fatherless son of a fellow prostitute, is meant to be the grand, doomed passion of both their lives. Yet it unfolds as a labored procession of middle-school melodrama and door-slamming theatrics, orchestrated in part by Chéri's mother (a bloaty, toad-like Kathy Bates). Even Pfeiffer's pillow talk is arch and affected, and a listless Rupert Friend has nothing to recommend him but a mop of curly hair and a fetching pout.

Despite its ostensible bravery, Chéri is, at its heart, a cautionary tale—a catalogue of the ways in which women can fail. The film teems with bad mothers, frigid wives, and overripe "working girls"—here, even the temporary pleasures offered by a young lover won't prevent an aging courtesan from getting just what the world thinks she deserves.