The original French title of ''Happily Ever After" translates to ''And They Got Married and Had Many Children." That's colloquially about the same as our fairy-tale cliché, ''they lived happily ever after," but the English title carries a sting that writer-director-star Yvan Attal doesn't quite intend. Everyone may be miserable in this funny, ribald, unexpectedly profound tale of married Parisian yuppies, but the joke and the tragedy is that they don't have to be.
Stylish and only superficially superficial, ''Happily Ever After" plunks us down with three male friends as they dance on the edge of their 40s. Hotel manager Georges (Alain Chabat) is in full, nuclear midlife crisis, married to the sharp-tongued Nathalie (Emmanuelle Seigner) and cursed with a child he doesn't much like. Vincent (Attal), a shaggy car salesman, adores his young son (Ruben Marx) but seems to have lost the pulse of his marriage to Gabrielle (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Attal's spouse in real life), an attractively moody realtor. (Warning: This is Paris, so everyone looks better than you do.)
The odd man out is Fred (Alain Cohen), Vincent's co-worker and an easygoing bachelor who appears to have the phone number of every model in France. This results in moments of fine comic cruelty when he has to juggle two cellphone conversations at lunch while Georges and Vincent look on in seething awe. ''You know nothing about married women," he teases them when they gripe about their wives.
But Fred is unhappy, too -- he longs for lasting bliss -- and the mysterious fickleness of men becomes the dominant subject of ''Happily Ever After," even as Gabrielle becomes the movie's increasingly touching central figure. She finds herself weeping in cafes as she wonders where her marriage has gone; she watches, appalled, as her 5-year-old son flirts with a high school girl on a bus, a scene that prompts us to wonder whether it's possible to cheat on one's mother.
Gabrielle finds herself considering adultery -- as a daydream, as a thrill, as revenge for her husband's distance -- and Attal dramatizes her turmoil in scenes whose acuity and grace can leave you breathless. In one, she banters with a sexy older man looking at an apartment and has a sudden vision of her life as a divorced mother. In another, the movie's swooning highlight, she finds herself at a Virgin Megastore listening station standing next to a Famous
Where another filmmaker might condemn these people, Attal (who plumbed male jealousy with his last movie, 2001's ''My Wife Is an Actress") understands that we carry our own temptations and salvations inside ourselves. ''Happily Ever After" is a roundelay of muffled regret and explosive comic release; when we see blood on the walls, it's the ketchup of a spontaneous food fight. The movie is at its unnerving best when it nails the separate lives of people who live together: the way a man can spy on his wife and child as if marveling that they're his, or the manner in which a husband can spark a wife's dissatisfaction into sudden fury.
The cast responds beautifully. As Georges, Chabat is rudely hilarious, no more so than when he fumes over the marital bliss of an attractive couple next door. Seigner, of course, was once the sex kitten of Roman Polanski's life and films, but she's past her physical prime now and seems delighted by the development: she's stroppy and mischievous. Gainesbourg is simply, devastatingly sympathetic, which would make the movie terribly one-sided if Attal weren't equally so.
There's so much meat here, in fact, that the director lets things go on too long, with one or two false peaks before an impishly ambiguous ending. He indulges in melodramatic contrivances; some of the insights are as shopworn as anything you'd find on ''Oprah." One can almost see the inevitable defanged Hollywood remake between the cracks.
Nor is this a movie for younger audiences, who'll find watching fretful marrieds tedious in the extreme (give them time; they'll be there soon enough), or for those who prefer sterner stuff like ''Scenes From a Marriage." ''Happily Ever After" is, however, a tremendously provocative date movie for couples brave enough to face each other afterward. At one point, Attal presents us with the image of two couples, one enduring a silent restaurant meal, the other just as silently renewing their affection. Which couple do you believe?, the director asks us. Which one do you want to be?
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.