Michelle Pfeiffer is so luminous and ravishing at 51, it’s hard to buy the central conceit of Stephen Frears’ Chéri — namely, that the aging courtesan played by Pfeiffer is a fading beauty who has seen better days. In certain light, a look of fatigue can mark Pfeiffer’s delicate features. But otherwise she joins the ranks of women like Sophia Loren and Julie Christie, whose features, with age, have taken on a complexity and warmth they lacked in youth.

Based on a 1920 novel by Colette, chronicler of the Parisian demimonde, Chéri centers on a distinct subculture of Belle Époque society. Léa (Pfeiffer) has spent her life using her beauty and sex appeal to separate wealthy men from their money. In modern terms, she’d be called a gold digger or a tramp, but in French society of the 1900s, she is simply a woman who is good at what she does.

In between conquests, Léa becomes captivated by a beautiful young man she has known since childhood, Chéri (Rupert Friend), a brooding, dark-haired hunk of unrealized potential who’d rather prance about in Léa’s string of pearls like a covetous child than bestow jewels on a lover. The debauched and directionless son of a former courtesan rival, Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates), Chéri has grown up spoiled and well-provided for, with all the lack of character that entails. Léa and Chéri become lovers, and for six years, they live the indulgent, sensual lives of teenagers utterly enraptured by each other.

But reality comes crashing in when Madame Peloux arranges for Chéri to marry the delicate, pretty Edmée (Felicity Jones), the daughter of another courtesan with a significant dowry. Chéri and Léa part ways, but their lives apart become consumed with thoughts of the other, and the love that got away.

The intense-but-doomed love affair between Léa and Chéri, screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Atonement, Dangerous Liaisons) hints, may be Peloux’s way of making sure her self-centered young son is well-trained — by an experienced woman — for the marital bedroom. While Peloux has all the maternal warmth of an iguana, Léa’s relationship with Chéri is in many ways, strangely maternal. Vanity and competition have transformed Léa’s fellow courtesans into harridans, but Léa has not allowed her occupation to corrupt her: she combines sex appeal with motherly comfort and nurturing.

Despite its turn-of-the-20th-century setting, Chéri is a remarkably contemporary story. Its heroine is a Samantha Jones cougar for the Belle Époque. Léa buys her own jewelry, runs her own business, supports herself in a lavish manner, and in the ultimate expression of her sexual liberation, is content to support a spoiled, but beautiful younger man because of the satisfaction he brings her. Ostracized from polite society, the clutch of courtesans spend their days together, prying into each others’ romantic conquests and lobbing gentle insults. Reminiscent of the female-centric universe of Sex and the City, Chéri occupies a world where men feel largely peripheral: important as the romantic linchpin of the story, but otherwise, often inconsequential.

The film strives for a level of romantic intensity in depicting the star-crossed love affair of Chéri and Léa that fizzles more often that it flames. Like Frears’ other costume drama Dangerous Liaisons, Chéri is centered on the love life of an enormously empowered female seductress. But despite the sense that women wear the pants in Frears’ universe, the film is defined by heartbreak and human frailty.

Though it paints a fascinating picture of a historical time and place where people lived according to their own rules, Chéri is about the proverbial fixation of melodrama: the ability of love to destroy us.