With The Chambermaid on the Titanic, the Spanish director Bigas Luna abandons the outrageousness of his recent sex farces like Jamon, Jamon and Golden Balls for something more discreet and elegant. The result is a delightful success, a mature and visually dazzling meditation on illusion and reality, romantic longing, human identity and the art of storytelling. The film's twisty narrative and playful handling of truth and fantasy even invite comparison to the grand master of Spanish cinema, Luis Bu˜uel.

Adapted by Luna, Cuca Canals and Jean-Louis Beno--t from the novel by Didier Decoin, The Chambermaid on the Titanic begins in northern France in 1912, where handsome, working-class Horty (Olivier Martinez) wins the annual endurance contest staged by the foundry where he toils. The prize: a trip to Southampton, England, to watch the launching of the celebrated Titanic. Unfortunately, the company's generosity doesn't extend to Horty's wife Zoe (Romane Bohringer), who is left behind to fend off the advances of her husband's boss. Staying for the first time in a fancy hotel, Horty encounters Marie (Aitana Sánchez Gijžn), a beautiful chambermaid hired to work on the Titanic, who says she has no place to spend the night and asks to share Horty's room. The young husband hesitantly agrees, and tries his best to remain faithful in the presence of this seductive stranger. But does he? The next morning, Marie is gone, and Horty catches a final glimpse of her just before she boards the fateful ship. A photographer takes her picture, and Horty obtains it as a souvenir of his erotically charged night in Southampton.

On his return home, Horty learns that he has been promoted, and he begins to suspect his wife of trading favors with his boss. When news of the Titanic's sinking reaches the town, Horty shows Marie's photo to his foundry cronies and, spurred by jealous feelings toward his wife, boasts about his hotel rendezvous. Horty becomes something of a local sensation, spinning increasingly elaborate versions of his Southampton tale that take the amorous couple onto the Titanic itself. One night, a traveling showman named Zeppe (Aldo Maccione) witnesses the hushed reaction to Horty's monologue, and convinces the foundry worker to take his act on the road, accompanied by his bemused but stagestruck wife.

Beginning with the gray, harsh, oppresive mise-en-sc'ne of the foundry town, The Chambermaid on the Titanic eventually opens out to more inviting alternative worlds. Though obviously dwarfed by a certain recent mega-blockbuster, the scenes of Titanic-mania in Southampton have their own quaint lushness, and the film acquires a pastoral charm once Horty and Zoe become traveling players. Cinematographer Patrick Blossier fills the wide screen with consistently gorgeous images, abetted by the ace period production design of Walter Caprara and Bruno Cesari. But, stylistically, where the film truly shines is in its fluid melding of reality and fantasy-right to the end, one is never sure exactly what transpired that night in Southampton, and the question becomes almost moot as Horty weaves it into a grand act of artistic imagination. Even his wife becomes caught up in the game, insinuating herself into the role of a surrogate lover she hopes is only a piece of embroidered fiction.

Luna's characters go through a radical transformation, and both his lead actors are up to the task. Martinez (The Horseman on the Roof) is completely convincing as a virile foundry worker turned dashing showman, and brings great panache to his increasingly ornate monologues. Bohringer (Savage Nights, Total Eclipse) begins the film as a drab, put-upon spouse and blossoms before our eyes as Zoe also makes a place for herself onstage-it's a solid and witty performance. Sánchez Gijžn, who starred opposite Keanu Reeves in A Walk in the Clouds, is indeed an imposing seductress in the title role, and Maccione is a winning ham as itinerant entertainer Zeppe.

The Chambermaid on the Titanic is an unexpected treat from Bigas Luna, a film about creative and romantic impulses that sparks the imagination long after the final credits roll.

--Kevin Lally