The French writer Colette, born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873 - 1954), lived one of those witty, charming lives you've read about, doing things like performing at the Moulin Rouge and having affairs with Josephine Baker, while marrying several rich husbands. She wrote, among many other things, what would become the famous musical Gigi, which Director Vincente Minnelli turned into a dull, immobile Oscar-winning hit in 1958. The English film director Stephen Frears would have been 13 when Colette died, though at that age, he had most likely never heard of her. But now, 55 years later, the two have teamed up for the new movie Cheri, based on Collete's 1920 novel about a passionate affair between an aging courtesan and a spoiled younger man.

Frears seems like the right man for the job. After all, his similarly sexy costume drama Dangerous Liaisons (1988) was another Oscar-winning hit. And in his Mrs. Henderson Presents (2005) he dealt with issues of sexuality and censorship on the stage, so he seems prepped to make something really sexy and full of wit and charm, especially given that he's re-teamed with his Dangerous Liaisons star Michelle Pfeiffer. It's a win-win scenario that quickly turns lose-lose. For some reason, Cheri is dead on arrival, a cold fish. It just lies there, too lethargic to be funny and too timid to be sexy, but not deep enough for any real drama.

Still unquestionably beautiful, Pfeiffer plays Lea de Lonval, a retired courtesan who once had the ability to bring powerful men to their knees with longing. Thanks to her many conquests, admirers and lovers, she has retired in style, with plenty of money to keep herself in the manner to which she has become accustomed. She sighs happily into bed, luxuriating in the pleasures of having it all to herself at last. Still, there are the requirements of social graces, and she often visits another retired courtesan with whom she shares a love-hate relationship, the overeating, over-drinking Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates). Madame Peloux has a pouty, drawn, spoiled son, nicknamed "Cheri" (Rupert Friend). Lea invites him away for a brief visit to the country, and it turns into a six-year love affair.

At the end of the six years, Madame Peloux arranges a mutually beneficial marriage between her son and a lovely young woman called Edmee (Felicity Jones), who is yet another lost, confused child of another courtesan (Iben Hjejle). Cheri goes through with the marriage, while Lea disappears to a glamorous hotel, hoping to make everyone think she's embarked upon a new and exciting secret affair. (She does begin sleeping with a young hunk, but it's rather an empty experience for her.) In reality, Cheri and Lea are in torment, continually pining for one another. But there's one thing that neither of them has realized.

We get lots of scenes with Cheri and Lea with rumpled hair, lying on rumpled sheets, but without any hint of an irresistible carnal desire. (Pfeiffer remains modestly covered.) It's as if the movie were more concerned with thread counts than with lust. The lovers seem as if they could casually walk away at any point. Part of the problem is that the movie requires Cheri to be a selfish brat, petulant and egotistical to a fault. When he sees a pearl necklace of Lea's, he demands it, and sulks when he can't have it. I have no idea how this annoying character could ever have worked, but the actor Friend (Pride and Prejudice, The Libertine) plays him literally, without a hint of regret or sorrow or self-doubt.

I could have lived with this if the movie had been funny, with some Oscar Wilde-type wit. And it does try, especially when the elegant ladies discuss their sordid past, but the sharp, dry lines are few and far-between. I can't say if Colette's original novel was funnier in French, but if it was the celebrated screenwriter Christopher Hampton fails to translate any of the good jokes. A look at Hampton's resume, which includes Atonement, The Quiet American, and Dangerous Liaisons, indicates that he was probably the wrong guy for the job. (Maybe if someone could have pulled Dave Eggers away from Away We Go for a few days, that would have done the trick?) Moreover, the lush cinematography by Darius Khondji and the score by Alexandre Desplat further steer the movie away from lightness.

Finally, there's the problem of depth. Without sex or humor, Cheri just doesn't have much going for it. I suspect that Colette, in her day, intended to shock and appall the reading public with her frank tale of a sex worker. Rather than a morally upstanding character, here was someone who had lived a life of lurid debauchery and reaped great rewards for it, living out her remaining days as a gentlewoman. Since this is no longer particularly interesting or shocking -- especially compared to another recent movie about a call girl, The Girlfriend Experience -- the thinly drawn characters and their emotional weight are now responsible for the entire film. Unfortunately, that emotional weight is about equivalent to a trifle.