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MOVIE REVIEW

As a sleek tale of midlife panic, 'La Moustache' grows on audience

It's very simple, ``La Moustache." Marc (Vincent Lindon), a bourgeois Parisian, is considering removing the neatly trimmed hair above his upper lip for the first time in 15 years. His wife, Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos), claims she wouldn't know him without it. But while she's out, he gingerly does the deed anyway. When she returns, what seemed like an easy tale of marital contentment becomes a mini-opus of existential crisis that's not as simple or straightforward as it initially appeared.

Sans m ustache, Marc finds himself in a twilight zone. Agnès doesn't say a word about his minor makeover. Sure, she's still frisky and loving with him, but, ahem: Notice anything different? He's initially nervous for her to see it, boyishly ducking when he enters the bedroom and hiding his face behind a towel. But when he stops playing, he assumes that she's startled. Her refusal to mention his clean-shaven face must be part of some practical joke, he thinks, and an elaborate one, too, since his co-workers and friends (including one played by Mathieu Amalric) don't say anything, either.

Directed and co-adapted by Emmanuel Carrère from his novel, ``La Moustache" comes on as both a rebuke to male vanity and a chic metaphor for midlife panic. Marc goes from perplexed to testy over what, really -- facial hair? But this is not ``Caché" for metrosexuals. That m ustache was a physical trademark and, apparently, a way into his soul. Who is he without it? Things get even stranger when Agnès insists he never even had one. (Few women do sympathetic disbelief as well as Devos.) As a matter of self-defense or possibly narcissism, Marc assumes his wife has lost her mind. The feeling is mutual: She tries, albeit reluctantly, to have him taken to a psychiatric facility.

From here ``La Moustache" leaps from a gripping identity thriller into a strange yet equally involving adventure about the bounds of self-knowledge and the incredible liberty of disregarding them. Carrère, who wrote the script with Jérôme Beaujour, remains true to the philosophical essence of his book. But his filmmaking (this is his feature debut) applies additional layers of mystery and mischief to his storytelling. The camera swoops and swings, while eruptive bits from Philip Glass's ``Concerto for Violin and Orchestra" distend the drama. In a supremely Hitchcockian flourish, Marc, restless in bed, is juxtaposed with the spin cycle of a washing machine. It's a symbolic overlay that's also very sleek.

Lindon's performance, of course, is the film's keystone. That sleepy-looking face of his has always given him an outrageously sexy advantage over his peers -- even in something approximating drag (see Benoît Jacquot's ``School of Flesh"). Frequently, he looks like he just rolled out of your bed. In ``La Moustache," that visage of fatigue becomes an emblem of stressed-out confusion -- and once or twice an occasion for delight. Mostly though, the weight of thought seems to pull down the corners of Lindon's mouth. He often looks miserable, but his torture is a treat for us.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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