On a busy street corner in Paris, Angele (Nathalie Baye) closes up shop at the elegant beauty spa known as the Venus Beauty Institute. The camera remains outside its glass door, giving the scene a loneliness and alienation that will, as it turns out, be examined with wit and depth in the film that follows. Angele, a woman in her early 40s, is one of four women whose lives Venus Beauty Institute examines with Gallic irony. The others are Madame Nadine (Bulle Ogier), the chic blonde businesswoman who owns the salon; Marie (Audrey TauTou), the gorgeous young brunette whose na™vete turns out to be profitable if not deceptive; and Samantha (Mathilde Seigner), who flirts with a variety of men but takes none of them seriously.

It is Angele who suffers for love, and there is a splendid scene early in the film during which she chases her latest lover through a train station, begging him to love her and then castigating him at the top of her lungs once the cause is lost. This emotional tirade is ignored by crowds swirling around the parting lovers, but not by a handsome young law student, Antoine (Samuel Le Bihan). He follows Angele to the Venus Beauty Institute and declares eternal love for her. She finds his passion preposterous. Half her age, Antoine admits that he is engaged to another, but suddenly finds himself unable to care for anyone but Angele.

Yet when Angele, exhausted by his pursuit, seems willing to respond sexually, he rejects her and flees-too sensitive, it seems, to overcome his overwhelming feeling of reverence for her. In the meantime, the women at work handle a wide range of clientele, including a prosperous widower with obvious designs on the vulnerable Marie, as well as a sexy housewife who enjoys displaying her body, flitting about Paris naked under her autumn coat. Nadine is planning to open a second beauty spa, but she and Samantha are getting on each other's nerves, snapping at each other like turtles.

Angele's melodramatic romance with Antoine threatens to reach a violent conclusion when Antoine's ex-fiance (Helene Filliere) undergoes spasms of jealousy and approaches them with pistol in hand. Things look grim, but there is nothing to fear. The resolution is more photogenic than violent, an appropriate conclusion for a film that has dealt with our obstinate desire for the triumph of appearance over reality.

Director Tonie Marshall's script is consistently absorbing, with a remarkable way of balancing wry and perceptive observations with the mundane. Her characters all seem to suffer from the loneliness of life in the big city, but at the same time remain charmingly sympathetic. Nathalie Baye's performance is, as usual, absorbing. She is one of those actresses who says volumes with a look or a gesture, but when she speaks, her words are sledgehammer-blunt and often devastating.

--Bruce Feld