By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated November 19, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Everybody wants the one they can’t have in Portraits Chinois, a light romantic do-si-do that happens to be French but (except for the proud smoking) could be an update of The Big Chill, an episode of thirtysomething, or — given the fetching neurotics involved — an exceptionally chic Sundance indie. The men in this me-oriented ensemble define themselves as writer, actor, producer, fashion designer; the women do similar stuff, only less confidently. And at one point or another, one character or another privately pines ”Je t’aime, je t’aime, je t’aime” over someone who doesn’t reciprocate.

As a British design apprentice working in Paris, Helena Bonham Carter is the Parker Posey-ish theatrical life of the party (Martine Dugowson’s film was made in 1996, when Bonham Carter still looked like she was having un-conflicted fun), observing the social currents around her with the rueful regard of a Jane Austen lady. But Elsa Zylberstein, a Hope Davis look-alike playing a charming, mournful screwup who mumbles and daydreams and drags her friends to watch her perform a comically terrible nightclub act, emerges as the smoker to watch—French cousin to creditable broken-wing comedians Lisa Kudrow and Melanie Mayron. B