'Cheri'

Adapted from two of Collette’s novels, Stephen Frears’ “Chéri” stars Michelle Pfeiffer as an aging prostitute who embarks on a long affair with the youthful title character (Rupert Friend); Kathy Bates costars as Chéri’s mother. “I liked that on the surface it’s bubbly, but underneath it’s quite tragic,” Frears says of the story, which layers social satire with romantic tragedy. As for casting Pfeiffer as a woman on the wrong side of youth, “You need someone who has been one of the great beauties of the world and is still beautiful,” says the director. “She was very courageous about it.” (June 26) (Bruno Calvo / Miramax Films)

Conjure up the ideal screen role for a famed film beauty, a woman now "of a certain age," and she would almost certainly be the spitting image of Léa de Lonval, aging courtesan in love with a callow, gorgeous young wastrel. The heroine of Colette's novel Chéri seems tailor-made for Michelle Pfeiffer, one of the screen's leading sex symbols of the '80s and '90s.

It's a take-stock sort of role. Partly because it's a film "about aging and double-standards," Pfeiffer says. She's experiencing a bit of that in the midst of what she doesn't like to call her "comeback," a return to films that began with Hairspray and Stardust in the summer of 2007. As she turned 50 (she's 51 now), she found that while there might be roles out there for her, her name above the title didn't guarantee a film's success, something Hollywood figured out quickly. Hairspray was a hit, Stardust wasn't. I Could Never Be Your Woman barely got released, nor did this year's Personal Effects.

"Courtesan [prostitute]or actress, you're making your living off your appeal to others," she says. That's an awkward thing to have to acknowledge, however delicately, in one's 50s.

"In terms of your physicality and your physical appearance and your sort of window of opportunity in your profession, how important a part it plays in that, there certainly is a parallel there," Pfeiffer says. "Certainly in Léa's profession, her beauty is a tool of her trade, as it is for an actress. I think that looks, whether you're beautiful or not, is one of the tools of our trade in terms of the kinds of parts that we can play, the versatility we can display, the diversity of roles we're offered; it really does go back to looks. Just like a courtesan."

Pfeiffer was summoned to the part by the acclaimed British director Stephen Frears (The Queen) who was re-teaming with his Dangerous Liaisons screenwriter, Christopher Hampton, for this period piece set in Belle Epoque (pre- World War I) France. With Pfeiffer on board, it was a regular costume-piece Dangerous Liaisons reunion. Every review makes note of this.

"A lot of people have made that comparison, but to me they're totally different movies -- different periods, different points of view," Pfeiffer says. "I loved this very unexpected portrait of a prostitute that Colette painted. I was surprised at how she doesn't fit our preconceived notions of what a prostitute is like. She is, in fact, an incredibly moral person."

Pfeiffer is being praised for her "strong performance" (London's Sunday Times) in Cheri, and more, for looking "more stunning than ever, and her mesmerizing characterization combines comedic charm, tragic depth and that never-to-be-underrated ingredient, sex appeal" (Chris Tookey, The Daily Mail).

"I suppose I could have gotten scared at this, but I sort of leap before I look. And I like a challenge. Most of the time, I base my decisions on emotions, my gut. It isn't until I actually get in there and realize what it actually entails and what it takes out of me and the places I have to go that I get scared."

"Scared? Of what? Perhaps her near-nude moments?

"I don't have any reluctance to show a LITTLE skin," Pfeiffer says, laughing. "But I'm NOT anxious to get back a corset again. For a LONG time."

Roger Moore can be reached at rmoore@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5369.