I think I say this every time a new film from director Stephen Frears comes out, but I really like Stephen Frears a whole lot, even though he's not any kind of a "fashionable" director. The man has a quiet genius for making movies that are altogether right in every wee little detail, and while it is true that he's not much of an auteur - if there's any theme or aesthetic fillip that unites all of his movies, I am entirely unaware of it - he's a gifted craftsman, of the kind that mostly died out after the end of the glory days of the studio system. You can generally rest assured that a Stephen Frears film is going to be perfectly and in all ways as solid and satisfactory as possible.

That mostly holds even when the film is ultimately as flimsy and delicate as Chéri, adapted from the 1920 novel by the French social satirist Colette. It is a charmingly tragic trifle of a movie that reunites Frears with the writer (Christopher Hampton) and one of the stars (Michelle Pfeiffer) of his 1988 Dangerous Liaisons, still the richest and best film of his career. If Chéri fails to hit the heights of that grand old melodrama, it's not for want of mining similar territory (the bedroom games of the idle French) with a similarly lavish attention to period detail; it's just that Chéri is not nearly as ambitious a story, nor made with the same operatic pounding. But for what it is, it's perfectly fine. If I conclude that the film is ultimately a touch on the trivial side, I do not believe that I am accusing it of anything that the filmmakers didn't intend it to be.

The titular character is actually named Fred Peloux (Rupert Friend), the son of one of Belle Époque France's most famous courtesans (Kathy Bates); "Chéri" was the nickname given to him at the age of six by his mother's colleague and pseudo-friend, Léa de Lonval (Pfeiffer). As the film opens, the 19-year-old Chéri has become a disaffected layabout, and Mme Peloux has asked Léa - who fills a role akin to the boy's godmother - to so something to pull him out of his spiral. "Something" turns out to be "start a passionate love affair", which lasts for six years before Chéri's mother announces that she wants to arrange his marriage to the daughter of another former courtesan, a callow thing named Edmée Laure (Felicity Jones). Léa and Chéri rather blithely call off their relationship, but only a few weeks have gone by before both of them realise that they've lost something much dearer than just a fuckbuddy; these two people who have built their whole lives around the idea "never fall in love" have just given up the truest love they've ever known.

There's something a bit depressing about the story when you get right down to it, but there's a certain something keeping Chéri from getting too bogged down in the seriousness of its own story; the arch, ironic narration certainly works to keep us a bit distant from the material, as does Frear's arm's length shooting style, heavy into the long and medium shots. Really, the only thing that doesn't play at dry wit and clinical detachment is Michelle Pfeiffer's marvelous performance as Léa. For a start, the actress is the only person in the film who gets any number of close-ups at all, and she uses them well; allowing us to watch the pain and abandonment in her eyes even as her entire face is smiling with the blandness that only the upper tiers of society can create so perfectly.

Léa really is a marvelous character: old enough to know that she's getting old, but not so old that she "is" old, if you follow me; she's of a certain age, but undeniably lovely and she knows it (it helps that we know it, too: at 51, she's still as gorgeous and desirable as she was 15 years ago, without any obvious hints of surgery). Still, there's an autumnal quality to her affair with Chéri; he is her last young man, at least the last young man she's ever going to possess so completely. Pfeiffer owns every last twist of Léa's character, which keeps dancing towards sadness but always retreating: into self-confidence, petulance, lust, forced contentment. In those few moments where she actually permits herself to drop all pretense and feel the full brunt of her loss, it's a shocking thing, overwhelming the film's carefully-calibrated staginess with messy humanity that the character would just as soon eradicate.

Without that staginess, the movie wouldn't really function properly, although it might be it's a touch too artificial and fussy; not having read the book, I can't honestly comment on its tone. But Chéri the movie has a light wry touch that feels somehow less French than British; naturally, I suppose, since Frears and Hampton are both Brits. There's a stolid quality to everything that doesn't quite exactly fit with the world being presented; it's still a light touch for a fairly light treatment of heavy topics, but the lightness isn't quite as natural and diaphonous, if you will, as it ought to be; it's the lightness of someone inclined towards heaviness trying hard to avoid it. Hence the staginess, an English attempt to recreate the careful shallowness that the French achieve so naturally. This forthright English quality served Frears tremendously well in making his last film, the magnificent The Queen, but along the line he lost sight of the man who created the feathery, acidic Dangerous Liaisons so organically from its very French roots. Something at the edges of Chéri almost suggests that most dreadful exemplar of fussy British mock-art cinema, the Masterpiece Theater school of literary adaptation; Frears is too good at his job to let that happen, but he's never drifted so close.

Certainly, the film is handsome enough to look like a self-conscious period film, probably the most conventional thing I've ever seen shot by Darius Khondji; and the bright, lush score by Alexandre Desplat, though quite good in all particulars, has the feeling of the violin-heavy score that you give to a tony literary prestige picture. None of it enough to make Chéri feel airless, thankfully. It is in fact very airy, brisk and over practically as soon as it starts, a very slick entertainment indeed. But it is a minor work, all told - a well-mounted but ultimately insubstantial look at the nature of love that is more than diverting enough, and constructed very tightly; but without that certain French bite to it, one leaves wondering if there was, indeed, a point to it all.