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A Girl Cut in Two ***

The preponderance of Claude Chabrol’s fifty-some films fit under the umbrella of “thriller,” and no matter how tepid the temperature of his more recent ones — The Bridesmaid, Flower of Evil, and presumably the one unreleased hereabouts, Comedy of Power — the expectation persists. To head off disappointment, it would be prudent to announce that his latest effort, A Girl Cut in Two, though it by and by works its way around to a crime of passion, is really not a thriller, is really an affairs-of-the-heart type of thing. (That doesn’t stop the trailer from trying: “From France’s Master of Suspense,” etc.) Many a narrative, needless to say, works its way around to a crime of passion — The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Othello, Medea — without anyone confusing them with thrillers.

The bisected title character — a condition made rather pedantically literal in the magic act at the curtain — is torn between two men. Or from another point of view, two men are tugging at her. One of these, who takes himself too seriously to crack a smile, is a literary lion twice her age (François Berléand), luxuriously settled in a glass house outside Lyon, with a loyal long-time wife (“I live with a saint” is his practiced refrain) who looks almost indistinguishable from his agent, a pair of mature brunettes (Valeria Cavvalli, Mathilda May). The title character, by startling contrast, is a dewy bottle-blonde (Ludivine Sagnier) employed as a ruby-lipped weathergirl in front of an electric-lime backdrop at the TV station where the writer has grudgingly come to be interviewed (“I lead a nun-like existence”). She immediately catches his eye there, but he doesn’t take up pursuit until a book signing at a shop serendipitously owned by her mother (Marie Bunel), an event she deigns to attend despite her airy declaration that she herself never reads books.

The other man is more her own age, a pampered pharmaceuticals heir (Benoît Magimel) with frosted hair, a dandy’s wardrobe, and a puffed-up chest that threatens to tip him over backwards in mid-swagger. He also has an abiding personal animosity toward the writer, never fully examined, and a streak of hot-headed violence. Unexpectedly, perhaps inexplicably, the older man is the first one to get past first base and all the way home — “Sexuality,” he muses, “is one of the great mysteries of humanity” — and the girl, by all appearances, offers her heart to him completely. But he is not without cruelty of his own, and the young popinjay, defying the snobbery of his ice-queen mother (Caroline Sihol), isn’t giving up: “I’m used to getting what I want, honey.”

Things change; the situation remains fluid and unpredictable; and Chabrol is there to follow developments, or more accurately, anticipate them, without any wasted motion or added agitation. His assurance is our assurance: we’re in good hands. And although the movie lacks the hallmarks of a thriller, it nonetheless has the mystery of personalities and relationships, and it has the tension of classes and generations, and it has several points of intrigue: the aforementioned animosity of the young man toward the older (what’s behind it?); the young one’s silent companion-cum-lackey-cum-bodyguard (who, or what, is this guy?); the hinted-at kinkiness of the bedroom activities; the enigmatic gentlemen’s club with the unexplored upstairs.

Some of that, we might feel, could have been better illuminated. This is clearly, however, a matter of choice rather than negligence. Chabrol, not as a general principle but at least as a one-time game plan, draws a veil over the most private matters, even when these become scandalously public. The citizens of Lyon learn more in some areas than we do. It’s as though Chabrol loses interest when the secrets turn into news. Mere facts, he insinuates, cannot dispel the mysteries. And his uniformly excellent cast, well-blended, discreet, inward, refuses to oversimplify things. If A Girl Cut in Two, at the Ken Cinema for the following week, is less of a thriller than usual, it is more of a movie.

The film at the Ken through Thursday the 16th is worth making an effort to see, Trouble the Water, a tight-focussed yet eye-widening documentary on Hurricane Katrina, its approach (“Who’s scared of water?”) and its sludgy aftermath. The extensive home-video footage, scrappily shot by a would-be rap artist calling herself Black Kold Medina, supplies firsthand testimony. Meanwhile, the San Diego Italian Film Festival, or to be strict, the San Diego Italian DVD Festival, continues through Sunday at the Museum of Photographic Arts, wrapping up with a film I missed when it played earlier this year at the Hillcrest, and a film I haven’t got around to watching on the DVD screener sent to me at the time, My Brother Is an Only Child. And the October entry in the Cinema en Tu Idioma series, a Mexican-Chilean co-production entitled El Brindis, will be at the UltraStar Mission Valley starting Friday and ending Thursday.

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