Canadian Atom Egoyan has been through what some critics would consider a rough stretch as a director. He hasn't had an acclaimed movie since 1997's brilliant "The Sweet Hereafter."

And it seems as though he is struggling to find the right material in his recent efforts, exploring various genre-bending in "Ararat," "Where the Truth Lies" and "Adoration."

With "Chloe," he's still struggling, trying to adapt the steamy French movie "Nathalie," with the help of Erin Cressida Wilson and the original writer, Anne Fontaine.

He's clearly in control of the material as a director. The production values are excellent. The settings, primarily the coffee shops and high-modernist homes of Toronto, capture the sophistication of the great Canadian city. And he has assembled a fine cast: Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore, who almost single-handedly saves the movie.

But the question remains: Is this really the right material for such an able director?

To many moviegoers, "Chloe" will probably seem to be a lesbian-themed "Fatal Attraction," with the requisite soft-core thrills. (Moore, of course, has been one of the bravest actresses when tackling sexually graphic themes.)

The story centers on a music professor (Neeson) and his wife, Catherine, a gynecologist (Moore). When the wife stages an elaborate surprise birthday party upon her husband's return from a business trip, she faces the ultimate embarrassment in front of her guests: Her husband calls to say he has missed his plane and won't be coming home.

Through subsequent scenes, Moore becomes suspicious about whether her husband is having an affair. So she comes up with a plan. She hires a high-dollar prostitute (Seyfried) whom she has seen on several occasions at a swanky apartment building near her office. The mission: The prostitute will pretend to be a student and have a chance encounter with the husband, then report back to the wife.

As Chloe the prostitute, Seyfried remains a mystery. Unlike Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction," her motivations aren't clear. With an angelic face, she doesn't seem to be psychotic and remains oddly sympathetic, desperately in search of a romantic connection.

And therein lies the problem. If Egoyan wants to build tension in a traditional thrillerlike way, we need to know more about Chloe and have enough information to either root for or against her. Instead, we watch as she is spurned and turns her interests to Catherine's teenage son. Is she being menacing? Or is she merely loveforesaken?

Egoyan has always been willing to bend the rules when making a movie. Sometimes, that's to be commended. But with "Chloe," the audience will probably end up thinking that the rules exist for a reason: dramatic coherence.

(A final side note: Neeson's wife, Natasha Richardson, died in 2009 from injuries suffered in a ski accident during the filming of "Chloe." But Neeson returned to the set, finishing his scenes on a hurried-up schedule.)

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931

Rating: R for nudity, sexuality, language, adult themes. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Theaters: Arbor, Dobie, Tinseltown South, AMC Barton Creek.