Filmmaker Raul Ruiz once defined himself as 'a monomaniac with several manias,' and that type of playful ambiguity often informs this Chilean-born director's work. Genealogies of a Crime, starring Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, finds Ruiz in an ironic, surreal milieu akin to his last picture, Three Lives and Only One Death, in which the late Marcello Mastroianni was cast in a quartet of roles.

In Genealogies of a Crime, Deneuve is cast in two roles: Jeanne, a Freudian psychoanalyst in Vienna, who sees homicidal tendencies in her five-year-old nephew (who eventually kills her); and Solange, the lawyer who winds up representing Ren, the grown-up nephew, when he later goes on trial for murder. Solange's defense is provocative. She sets out to prove that young Ren was lured into committing the crime by Jeanne in order to prove the latter's theories.

'Nothing so resembles virtue as true crime,' notes one of the film's characters, quoting Saint-Just, and Genealogies of a Crime glistens with that brand of paradoxical wit. In a similar touch, mirrors are a constant presence in Ruiz's mise-en-sc'ne, whether reflecting images conventionally or, in the case of a one-way mirror, adding to the film's surrealism. 'Truth is absorbed through the eyes,' maintains Piccoli's character, a somewhat batty psychoanalyst named Georges, who may have been an eyewitness to the crime. In the film's continually shifting world, nothing can be certain.

Deneuve appears to be right at home in Ruiz's universe, which isn't far removed from the universe of Luis Bu˜uel, the filmmaker who directed two of her signature performances--in Belle de Jour and Tristana. Here, Deneuve is entirely believable as the lawyer determined to save her client against all odds. And, sporting a red wig, she is idiosyncratic but equally convincing as the unstable theorist who plays a psychological game only to lose her life. Piccoli, who teamed with Deneuve in Belle de Jour, has some choice moments with her here, in a slightly daffy comic vein. Even daffier is a scene in which Solange's chatty mother, played to a comedic tee by Monique Mlinaud, expires from excitement on Georges' couch.

Ruiz reportedly based Genealogies of a Crime on an actual event that took place in the 1920s, but, whatever its origins, this is a movie that intersects with reality on its own terms. Shot mainly in reds, blues and browns by cinematographer Stefan Ivanov, it's also a very handsome film that draws the viewer inexorably into its enigmatic world. Elegantly creepy one minute and cheerfully absurdist the next, Genealogies of a Crime is lively and inventive, suggesting that there is more going on here than meets the eye. Of course, in the spirit of surrealism, one could argue that the reverse may also be true.

--Ed Kelleher