Wednesday, January 6, 1999

Seventh Heaven

Posted By on Wed, Jan 6, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Slowly but surely the results of French writer-director Benoit Jacquot's 23-year career as an auteur are being exported to America. His first film to play here was his eighth feature, 1995's A Single Girl, a real-time tour de force which combines naturalism with an elliptical narrative sensibility. Its success led to the release last year of his sixth feature, 1990's The Disenchanted, a film which, though its several strands of story seem awkwardly blended, confirmed the impression left by Girl that Jacquot's is a beguiling and original cinematic voice.

The release now of 1997's Seventh Heaven can only enhance the director's stature. Like the two films just mentioned, it centers around a young woman -- or more specifically, a young actress. As more of Jacquot's work is seen, it becomes apparent that one of his gifts is the ability to fashion a vehicle which clings so closely to its charismatic star that its unfolding seems to be the natural result of a gesture, an expression, a carefully held silence.

The young woman at the center this time is Mathilda (Sandrine Kiberlain). Given to kleptomania and fainting spells, she is also sleepwalking through a marriage that is not so much unhappy as deeply uneventful. It's not just that her husband, the handsome and clueless orthopedic surgeon Nico (Vincent Lindon), can't bring her to orgasm, it's that she doesn't seem to be quite there most of the time.

A ripe subject for a hypnotist, it would seem, and sure enough one soon materializes at a dull dinner party she and Nico are attending. A second encounter with this mysterious mesmerist leads to some simple but radical changes in her life which soon have Nico seeking similar aid. But where Mathilda is a flexible soul, Nico is made of sterner stuff -- his own encounter with a hypnotist is a wonderfully low-keyed, comic set piece -- and so it becomes a question of who will bend and who will break.

Low-keyed is also an apt way of describing Jacquot's style, and one suspects that his penchant for thoughtful provocation over sensation and simple warmth over sentimentality have contributed to his slow arrival stateside. Nothing is sorted out in Seventh Heaven; Mathilda and Nico's relationship continues to drift implacably and the snags that slow it are not monumental. Hypnotism is made to seem both disturbingly powerful and absurdly inept. Nothing is certain -- except, perhaps, that life is very strange and love, it would seem, very important.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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