The title of writer-director Alan Rudolph’s new film and the names of the companies that produced it—Moonstone Entertainment, Sand Castle 5, and Elysian Dreams—foreshadow the ethereal spell it casts. Despite crippling flaws, Afterglow is an enchanting experience, a return to form for the idiosyncratic, prodigiously talented filmmaker and his radiant star, Julie Christie.

In the mid-’80s, Rudolph wrote and directed Choose Me, Trouble in Mind, and The Moderns, a trio of offbeat, richly atmospheric comedy-dramas hailed by critics and adventurous moviegoers. A victim of the demographics-driven, bottom-line strictures of ’90s film production, he has been able to secure financing for only three projects in the past decade (Love at Large, Equinox, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle), none of which rivaled those earlier efforts. (He also served as a hired gun on Mortal Thoughts, brought in after producer-star Demi Moore fired the original director.) With Afterglow, Rudolph returns to the romantic-ironic mode of Choose Me in a stylized fable that explores the mysteries of desire, love, and redemption.

A vibrant screen presence since her breakthrough in 1963’s Billy Liar, Christie has also been shamefully underemployed in the past decade. Following her unforgettable performances in Petulia, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Shampoo, she opted for roles in esoteric, little-seen projects (The Gold Diggers, Miss Mary) and has appeared in only three theatrical releases in the ’90s: Fools of Fortune, Dragonheart, and in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, as Gertrude. Just as one began to fear she was doomed to the ageist desuetude of movie actresses over 50, Christie has resurfaced, more expressive and glamorous than ever, in Afterglow.

Set in contemporary Montreal, Rudolph’s screenplay interweaves two unraveling relationships. Lucky Mann (Nick Nolte), a philandering contractor who attends to the repair work and libidos of amorous housewives, has sustained a 24-year marriage to Phyllis (Christie), a disillusioned erstwhile B-movie actress who has withdrawn from him following a bitter argument and tolerates his infidelities. Indifferent to Lucky’s attempts to resurrect their union, she prefers to watch her old films on television, musing, “The hardest part is finding out too late that none of it lasts.”

Lucky is hired to construct a child’s bedroom by Marianne Byron (Lara Flynn Boyle), unhappily married to Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller), a young, self-absorbed corporate yuppie too preoccupied by his career to satisfy his wife’s sexual and maternal desires. Shunned by their inattentive mates, Marianne and Lucky quickly become lovers. Their liaison awakens suspicion in Phyllis and Jeffrey, who, in the course of tailing their errant spouses, begin a flirtation of their own, unaware of each other’s identity.

This skeletal summary fails to represent the tangled network of parallels and counterpoints that emerge from Rudolph’s amatory quartet, but revealing more would diminish the movie’s bittersweet impact. Better to focus on the film’s voluptuous style, which is at least as satisfying as its content. Employing the long-take technique he has evolved to deal with the exigencies of low budgets and short shooting schedules, Rudolph gracefully glides his camera through amber-lit interiors, buoyed by Mark Isham’s moody jazz score, which features vibraphonist Gary Burton, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, pianist Geri Allen, and percussionist Billy Higgins. Afterglow’s sensuous, dreamy style mirrors the paradoxes of its substance, expressing a vision that is simultaneously concrete and parable-like.

As in previous Rudolph projects, the acting is wildly uneven. Typically, his films juxtapose superlative and inept performances: Geraldine Chaplin and Berry Berenson in Remember My Name, Genevieve Bujold and Rae Dawn Chong in Choose Me, Keith Carradine and Divine in Trouble in Mind. Christie’s Phyllis supplies Afterglow’s emotional core. Blindingly beautiful at 57—in a recent Premiere interview she confessed to some minor cosmetic tucks—Christie surpasses her previous work in a role that requires her to move from melancholic resignation to shattering primal screams. In the movie’s most mesmerizing scene, a dinner-table monologue in which Phyllis reveals her past to two transfixed admirers, Christie’s enigmatic glances and pianissimo voice convey the anguish buried beneath her character’s steely disenchantment. Students of screen acting should be required to watch this scene daily as an example of how a performer’s subtle interaction with a camera can create poetry.

Cigar-chomping Lucky, whose alley-cat concupiscence masks a wounded heart, falls well within Nolte’s range; he has played similar characters in North Dallas Forty, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and I Love Trouble. Though credible, his performance offers no surprises, and his plastic surgeon would benefit from a brush-up course with Christie’s. (With his leathery skin tightly drawn and his hair obviously bleached, he resembles a vaguely mummified Kevin Bacon.) Baby-faced Miller, who played Sick Boy in Trainspotting, effortlessly captures Jeffrey’s haughty, button-down complacency but fails to locate the fear and despair beneath the character’s bland, materialistic surface. Boyle’s Marianne is a washout on every count. Her grating gaucheness and shrill, stilted line readings reduce what should be a sympathetic character to an irritating liability that frequently grounds the narrative’s gossamer mood. After her hapless contribution to Equinox, it’s bewildering to find that Rudolph has once again cast her in a pivotal role.

Boyle’s charmlessness isn’t the only problem one has to overlook in Afterglow. Rudolph’s complicated narrative structure disintegrates in the film’s closing reels, collapsing into a series of ill-judged scenes that jarringly shift from physical confrontations (here, as before, Rudolph demonstrates that he is incapable of directing fight sequences) to door-slamming farce and feel-good melodrama. These startling tonal permutations, along with the heavy-handed use of fast-motion and the intrusive soundtrack incorporation of Tom Waits’ version of “Somewhere”—the most maladroit use of a pop record since John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the fadeout of The Killing Fields—betray Rudolph’s strain in trying to bring resolution to themes that resist closure.

One of the most difficult aspects of movie reviewing is trying to reconcile one’s intensely subjective responses with what one assumes will be the reactions of readers. I think of this problem as the Anchovy Perplex. For me, pizza is unthinkable without those salty fillets, but I have learned that few possess my appetite for them. I suspect Afterglow is a cinematic anchovy. Down-to-earth moviegoers who do not share my impacted romantic sensibility may well find it frivolously precious. But those who believe that dreams and longings are as substantial as quotidian experience and who concur with Rudolph’s conviction that life’s possibilities are inexhaustible will likely regard it as highly as I do. CP