by Stephen Frears
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Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century is the sophisticated centre of the world. The city’s artists, its fashion, the theatre and its music. But Paris is also famous for its courtesans: women who are so beautiful, intelligent and knowledgeable in the art of love that crown princes, dukes and captains of industry alike are willing to part with large sums of money for the pleasure of their company. One such lady is Léa. She can now afford to lead a comfortable life and has retired from her trade altogether. One day she goes to lunch with her old colleague Mme Peloux. She is accompanied by a young man who turns out to be her own son, Chéri, as his mother calls him. Mme Peloux has big plans for him, but beforehand, he needs to gain his manhood. Mme Peloux proposes that Léa initiate him. Léa accepts and, before long, something that begins as a playful flirt soon turns into a passionate love affair, a liaison lasting six years. In the meantime Mme Peloux has arranged a marriage for her son. Now that the wedding date approaches, the bride and bridegroom are to be presented to Léa. This marks the beginning of a tragic love story which causes misery for all concerned.