Do the French have a more beguiling actress than Emmanuelle Devos? In 2001's ''Read My Lips," she made lust seem baleful. In last year's ''Kings and Queen," she played a woman with a thousand different feelings, and she usually played them all at once. For her latest movie, ''Gilles' Wife," that voluptuous face of hers (tremendous eyes, a big full mouth) tends to look content when her character, Elisa, is actually sad, and when she ought to be happy, she looks concerned, as if whatever's inspired her joy won't last. She's right to worry.
Elisa is married to a miner, Gilles (Clovis Cornillac), during the 1930s in a tiny French village. Gilles is a large, passionate man, and he'd be a beast if Cornillac were not so boyishly handsome, like Jean Gabin with baby fat and higher intensity. As it is, he's still something of a brute, coming and going as he pleases. Most mornings he returns home to his resplendent little cottage from the heat of the mines, and promptly makes love to his sleeping spouse. Elisa performs all her wifely duties in a state of rapture. Pouring Gilles's beer is as pleasurable as wringing out the sheets or scrubbing the kitchen floor. She cooks Gilles's meals and watches him tear through them.
During one breakfast, Elisa, who's several months pregnant, gets up from the table to give their twin girls a bath, and her younger sister, Victorine (Laura Smet), takes her chair. And director Frederic Fonteyne's straight line of marital comfort stretches into a possible sexual triangle. It'd be a disservice to this tightly constructed little movie and its rewards to reveal much more.
Based on a 1937 book by Belgian novelist Madeleine Bourdouxhe, ''Gilles' Wife" is predicated on a delicate balance of narrative ambiguity and emotional ambivalence: Elisa is operating on hunches and clues. So are we. But that sundress clinging to Victorine when we meet her might be the only hint we need.
Elisa quietly shoulders the burden of what she perceives as a double betrayal. Devos, though, gradually reveals a woman full of canny little surprises, the first of which is her last-minute decision to accompany her husband and her sister on a date to the movies. Like May Welland, the wronged wife in Edith Wharton's ''The Age of Innocence," Elisa's angelically permissive nature belies her keenness. By the film's conclusion, Fonteyne might be too insistent that Elisa come to her senses, but ''Gilles' Wife" is ultimately about the personal consequences of Elisa's suspicious mind.
Fonteyne and his cinematographer, Virginie Saint Martin, have a field day framing Elisa's increasing awareness. Most of the film has the exquisite textures of some oil paintings, and certain shots could be auctioned off at
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.