Anne Fontaine's Dry Cleaning is a delicious but ultimately disturbing tale of sexual politics and repression that has already seduced Europe by winning the Best Screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival and a Cesar for Best New Actor for Stanislas Merhar.

Merhar's role is pivotal, as he plays the sexually aggressive and androgynous Loic, whose drag act with his sister Marylin (Mathilde Seigner) dazzles Nicole and Jean-Marie (Miou-Miou and Charles Berling), a repressed, long-married French couple who run the town's dry-cleaning establishment.

Nicole and Jean-Marie have joined fellow merchants on an adventure into the city's risque quarter, where they patronize a club with a shady reputation. After the show, the siblings lure the couple into a foursome that, although aborted, must still be paid for. Initially, Loic pockets money from Jean-Marie, but ultimately the trio will pay a dearer price.

Nicole and Jean-Marie's initial brief encounter with the uninhibited cabaret artistes shakes them from their proper bourgeois routine of 15 years, during which their cleaning business was as punctiliously run as their marriage. Now, with a taste for the exotic, Nicole and Jean-Marie seek out a kinkier kind of nightlife. During a weekend trip across the border to Basel, Switzerland from their native Belfort, France, the couple bump into Loic and his sis in another club. After Marylin deserts her brother, Loic latches onto Nicole and Jean-Marie, first crashing in their hotel room, then joining them back in France as both a lodger and employee. Loic begins a steamy affair with Nicole, then makes his move on Jean-Marie, who counters with a particularly violent and ambiguous resistance to the young man's overtures.

What makes Dry Cleaning a standout among recent films on the same theme like The Trio and a minor triumph when compared to similarly themed classics like The Servant or Teorema is the fact that the drama convinces throughout. Miou-Miou, Berling and Merhar are thoroughly believable in their key roles, as are Seigneur and Nanou Meister, who plays Yvette, Jean-Marie's live-in mother. The highly magnetic Merhar, who performs with the natural ease and abandon of a naif running on pure instinct, is particularly remarkable, since Dry Cleaning marks his acting debut.

Caroline Champetier's camera, which records the meticulously run dry-cleaning plant in the meticulously designed little city of Belfort, further abets the filmmaker in her efforts to sweep away the audience into this erotic cauldron. And the production design and costumes further intensify the reality of this tense microcosm.

But Fontaine laces her story with enough humor, suspense and insight to lift the plot far above the merely sleazy and titillating. Dry Cleaning may be a voyeur's delight, but, teeming with ideas about repression, mores, morality, human psychology and fate, it is also a feast for the mind. As rich as Dry Cleaning may be, it doesn't forget to entertain.

--Doris Toumarkine