With Post Coitum, Brigitte Roüan not only reaffirms the bright talent she displayed with her ambitious feature directing debut, Overseas, but proves herself an actress and filmmaker of remarkable courage. This raw, compelling drama of amour fou is an emotional tour de force for the French star, while at the same time revealing a coolly intelligent, confidently daring presence behind the camera.

Roüan plays Diane Clovier, a Paris book editor with a lawyer husband and two teenage children, who's having trouble coaxing a second novel out of one of her young authors, Fran‡ois (Nils Tavernier). While confronting Fran‡ois at his home, Diane lays eyes on his roommate Emilio (Boris Terral), a handsome, curly-haired hydraulic engineer who enters the room wearing only a loincloth. After Fran‡ois storms out, Emilio offers Diane a drink and a 'comfort zone,' and the fortyish editor is instantly smitten. Caught up in an uncontrollable passion, she arranges rendezvous both discreet and indiscreet with this hunky younger man, while trying to maintain her everyday routine with her office-mates and her gentle husband and wholesome kids. But desire outweighs caution, and soon she's having to account for odd absences from work and home. Hubby Philippe (Patrick Chesnais) confirms vague suspicions when he listens in on a passionate phone call between Diane and her paramour, and suffers quietly in the hope that her affair will flame out quickly.

Emilio is an enthusiastic lover, but he doesn't share the same consuming need for Diane that she feels for him. When he announces that he'll soon be leaving for six months on a humanitarian-aid trip to Africa, Diane takes the news hard and Emilio rather uncavalierly distances himself from her. Unable to accept the end of their torrid romance, Diane begins a steady decline that leads to a complete nervous breakdown.

As counterpoint to Diane's story, the film also provides glimpses of an elderly neighbor Philippe is defending on charges of murdering her unfaithful husband with a carving fork. The old woman serves as a reflection of both Philippe, who's struggling with his feelings of anger over his wife's deception, and Diane, who has also succumbed to a kind of madness.

Roüan tells her story in a loose, jagged style perfectly suited to Diane's feverish erotic journey. She's constantly juxtaposing the various elements of the narrative, just as Diane breathlessly tries to juggle her conflicting emotional demands. The movie is filled with marvelous little behavioral details: Diane losing her balance when Emilio first kisses her in a storage room; the delight she takes in watching him shave; her son asking permission to practice the piano while Diane wallows in slovenly self-pity in her living room. All the characterizations are in shades of gray; Roüan keeps her players recognizably human and likeable even when they're being their most selfish and hurtful. The latter part of the film, centered on Diane's collapse, finds Roüan the actress at her bravest-sprawled out on the floor in a stupor on Mother's Day, or sadly evaluating her aging body in a mirror. Everybody at one time has probably felt this kind of love-fueled despair, and Roüan taps into those primal emotions with striking immediacy.

The rest of the cast is up to the standard Roüan establishes. Chesnais is extremely sympathetic as the decent husband grappling with his feelings of betrayal by the woman he loves. Philippe, too, flirts with madness, but in a much lower key, as he collects and obsesses over his wife's amorous phone messages. Terral, meanwhile, is more than sexy enough to justify Diane's middle-aged lunacy, with a killer smile that almost forces us to forgive the shabby way Emilio ends the affair. Tavernier is appropriately irritating as the client whose writer's block has turned him into a needy child, then surprisingly tender and admirable after Diane's crisis inspires a breakthrough. A tale of mad love that's bracing in its originality and emotional frankness, Post Coitum ought to be one of the season's more talked-about art-house hits.

--Kevin Lally