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Les Brocades Dangereuses

“ChAcri” searches for heart in a woman-made wilderness of excess.

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Stephen Frears' eye for glamorous period detail doesn't fail him in “ChAcri,” a rapturously decorated bodice-ripper set in Paris during the belle Acpoque. The director of “Dangerous Liaisons” and “The Queen” has provided something of a vacation amid the summer action-movie season, with explosions of extravagantly decorated drawing rooms and cafes filling in for the guns and rockets, although there is no lack of decadent, dangerous characters.

Entwined in human limbs and seductively curling art nouveau architecture, “ChAcri” concerns a highly paid class of early-20th-century courtesans who amassed fortunes by fleecing Europe's wealthiest patrons. Overflowing with visual splendor, the film's only problem is figuring out how to turn characters of such slim and single-minded morals into people we care about as much as their designer environs.

One profanely wealthy example (Kathy Bates) places her wayward boy, ChAcri (Rupert Friend) in the hands of fiftysomething colleague LAca (Michelle Pfeiffer), hoping she can keep him away from life's more nettlesome vices. Six years later LAca is still doing her best when mother returns to tear the May-December romance apart.

Did courtesans and their kin really amass such wealth and live in such leisurely splendor? Perhaps, but an even juicer question is how society (or we) would feel about the upside-down relationship between LAca and ChAcri, who spends most of the movie in fancy satin pajamas and some of it in his sugar mama's priceless string of pearls.

Frears cozies up to the odd implications of such an arrangement and then leaves it cold, much as LAca abandons ChAcri when he must honeymoon in Italy. If we're supposed to pity the couple, the director's case is flimsy and a little strange.

ChAcri and LAca are great to look at, and both are believably naive and selfish, but they're also empty-headed and vain. It's difficult to yearn for their reunion, though it feels we are supposed to.

Frears has so much trouble coming up with that reason, he has to drag the narrator back out to tell us what becomes of his duo. In the end, all our sympathy and longing eludes them — better spent, like fortunes, on their beautiful era instead. (R) 100 min.  HHHII S

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