In the last few years, the French director Benit Jacquot has become known in this country for two lyrical films-The Disenchanted and A Single Girl-which revolve around the hopes and dreams of vibrant, if frustrated, young women. Seventh Heaven is something of a departure for Jacquot, since it explores the marital problems of a slightly older woman, as well as the corresponding emotional woes of her irascible husband. Unlike the earlier films, which could be described as straightforward narrative exercises (both movies wholeheartedly share their young protagonists' points of view), Seventh Heaven's perspective seems curiously muddled. It is difficult to ascertain whether Jacquot is striving for an idiosyncratic version of a Hollywood psychological thriller (Otto Preminger's Whirlpool seems to be a muted influence) or is attempting to subvert his own earlier work by making the characters' motivations and inner lives almost totally opaque.

Seventh Heaven's credit sequence, featuring an out-of-focus shot of its protagonist, Mathilde (Sandrine Kiberlain), lets the audience know from the outset that this young woman's emotional fragility will be a narrative focal point. A beautiful if slightly gawky redhead, Mathilde is plagued by severe depression which makes her neglect her duties at work and has apparently precipitated uncontrollable bouts of kleptomania. She has also lost the ability to respond sexually to her husband, a prosperous surgeon named Nico (Vincent Lindon).

After she is caught red-handed stealing children's toys (the commodities she most loves to pilfer), a mysterious therapist appears on the scene and escorts her to lunch. The doctor turns out to be a hypnotist (and is, in fact, more of a miracle worker than a traditional physician) who also dabbles in the Chinese practice known as Feng Shui. Under hypnosis, Mathilde becomes convinced that her father's death, supposedly caused by a fatal automobile accident, was actually a suicide. When she decides to rearrange the furnishings in her apartment according to the principles of Feng Shui advocated by the doctor, her newfound sense of emotional well-being proves unsettling to both her husband and mother.

While Jacquot's thematic agenda proves slightly elusive, the ability of Mathilde's happiness to annoy the individuals closest to her provides ample opportunities for coy narrative ironies. Nico is obviously jealous of his wife's happiness, despite the fact that he is unaware of her sessions with the hypnotist. Even Mathilde's hearty orgasms leave Nico cold and panicky, although he is nevertheless able to enjoy recreational sex with his nubile assistant without a pang of guilt.

When Mathilde's mother divulges the details of her daughter's miracle recovery to Nico, the hapless husband becomes inspired to seek out a hypnotist of his own. This hypnotist, however, is a curt man who seems disdainful of his new patient. Nico's barely suppressed rage leads to the film's somewhat elliptical denouement-a futile wild goose chase for Mathilde's doctor which ends with the placid wife looking on with amused horror as her husband's rationalist facade crumbles. Despite this marital imbroglio, the film ends with the implication that the couple's dysfunctional marriage is gradually becoming a mature, happy relationship.

In the hands of a director with a different sensibility, this unlikely scenario could have reaped huge comic rewards. Unfortunately, comedy does not happen to be Jacquot's forte-his more compelling early films were distinguished by a melancholy tone and an observational style in which subtle epiphanies were emphasized. Instead of stressing the farcical potential of Nico's mid-life crisis, the film becomes an uninvolving melodrama which lacks dramatic tension. Since Mathilde and Nico are essentially ciphers, their highly charged emotional lives are much less interesting than the superficially banal characters and situations featured in The Disenchanted and A Single Girl. Blessed with accomplished performances (Kiberlain is never less than utterly convincing and Lindon conveys male befuddlement with great flair), Seventh Heaven is a rather misbegotten venture which fails to engage either our emotions or our minds.

--Richard Porton