Love that is gripping and unbelievable

Suffused with a painterly tenderness and cruelty, the French film "Gilles' Wife" -- based on a 1937 Belgian novel by Madeleine Bourdouxhe -- stars the extraordinary actress Emmanuelle Devos ("Kings and Queen," "Read My Lips") as Elisa, a country housewife and mother who fears her handsome bruiser of a husband (Clovis Cornillac) is having an affair with her blithely beautiful younger sister Victorine (Laura Smet).

It's a story that sounds familiar, save for our protagonist's unusual remedy when all is revealed: a steadfast, unconditional love that is both mysteriously gripping and occasionally, as when Elisa agrees to spy on little sis to assuage hubby's petulant heart, a tad unbelievable. But director Frederic Fonteyne, whose 1999 hotel tryst feature "An Affair of Love" was about the tyranny of conditional romance, has a firm grip on the devoutness of this exquisitely photographed (by Virginie Saint-Martin) material, which often plays as an ode to wrenching Gallic love stories of the '30s.

The distinctive paucity of dialogue gives the proceedings a silent-era aura, as well, and nowhere is that more apparent than the generous time given to rigorous close-ups of Devos, whose piercing eyes and sensual, almost Cubist features -- whether lost, or giggling, or in ecstasy -- seem to defy any one camera angle. To watch Devos watch is to somehow tap into things infinite.

-- Robert Abele

"Gilles' Wife" (Unrated) Running time: Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, Beverly Boulevard at Fairfax Avenue, (323) 655-4010; One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley (Union Street at Fair Oaks Avenue), Pasadena, (626) 744-1224.

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