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A little more than 20 years ago, Dangerous Liaisons set a near-camp standard for sparring aristos who draw blood, yet still fall prey to true love and what workplace manuals now call ageism. Pairing up the same director-screenwriter team (Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton), Chri takes a lighter, less grand tack on costumed ardor. The elusive Michelle Pfeiffer stars as La, a wealthy belle-epoque courtesan who’s retiring; frenemy and former colleague Madame Peloux (Bates) sets the ex-harlot up with her heavy-lidded, brothel-raised son (Friend). La once idly nicknamed him Chri, like a poodle; after the two enjoy a dirty weekend in the country, however, a six-year affair ensues.

When Peloux abruptly sends Chri off to be married, the film’s irony shifts from well-turned cattiness to the aching romantic kind, while La goes from having the perpetual postcoital glow of a spa queen to looking brittle and stranded. The problem is that no one holds our attention as much as Pfeiffer: Friend gets lots of camera love but flops under the dramatic spotlight, and Bates determinedly plays second fiddle. During the couple’s separation, Pfeiffer is offscreen for what feels like long stretches—a by-product of the adaptation pains detectable in Hampton’s streamlining of several novels by demimonde chronicler Colette. The cold-water comedown after the flush of the affair is intriguing, but with its disconnected tones, Chri really feels like a film that can’t do more than one thing at a time.—Nicolas Rapold

Opens Fri.

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