If the way so many love stories play out is predictable, their beginnings are often a mystery. ``Why is he talking to her?" the guys joke. ``What's she up to with that guy?" her clique whispers. And yet something there works, against all odds, against all friends.
``When the Sea Rises" is the personal project of Yolande Moreau (best known for playing the tipsy, mournful concierge in ``Amélie"), who co-wrote, co-directed, and plays the lead role, Irène. She's an older actress endlessly giving her one-woman show in the provinces, driving from arts center to public school to rest home. The piece is a sort of stand-up Ionesco, with Irène coming out on stage in an unbecoming dress and grotesque mask, her forearms reddened as if by blood. ``I got mixed up in a crime . . .," she says, voice nasal and flat.
We see fragments of each show, which is half improvised, but always involves her choosing from the audience a male ``chicken," whom she teases and torments with a tale of their ``great love." Nights are spent in bland hotels, her solace regular calls home to her husband and child.
Irène's season takes a detour one day when her car breaks down between gigs and she's helped out by Dries (Wim Willaert), a shaggy-haired fellow who gives the impression of having only recently acquired the power of speech. As thanks, she gives him tickets to that evening's show, then chooses him as her ``chicken." He's intrigued in his lumpen way, and she's just grateful to talk to someone who doesn't use a walker.
And so begins a relationship of sorts, one that's a charming mixture of affection and illusion. Dries goes to a second show of Irène's, she drops him home after his moped is vandalized by some particularly unsophisticated locals. The next night he's in the audience again, and soon her calls back home start to become less frequent.
There's no false drama here, just a sharp pen and keenly focused eye that often looks beyond Irène and Dries, for ``When the Sea Rises" is also a billet-doux to the borderland between Belgium and France. We see the little towns in which Irene's performances take place and the long roads between them. Each one is forgettable and soon enough forgotten, yet Moreau's script recites their names like a kind of poetry: Bethune, Lens, Lille, Arras . . . Paris is here, but only as a tacky sculpture of the Eiffel tower in the middle of a rotary intersection.
This is perhaps the movie's true story, of a woman's affection for a place and a time in her life, when she made her living as she could, and found love where it found her.
Leighton Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.