When a man spontaneously shaves off the title occupant of his upper lip in "The Moustache," an apparent shift in the fabric of the universe results. Viewers who like their conclusions tidy may rebel, but those who relish outstanding perfs in the service of an intriguing idea will be entertained.

When a man spontaneously shaves off the title occupant of his upper lip in “The Moustache,” an apparent shift in the fabric of the universe results. Adapting his own 1986 novel, Emmanuel Carrere — whose books “Class Trip” and “The Adversary” became Cannes Competition titles by Claude Miller and Nicole Garcia, respectively — provides a feast of sustained tension as the man’s wife and his closest friends deny that he ever had a moustache. Viewers who like their conclusions tidy may rebel, but those who relish outstanding perfs in the service of an intriguing idea will be entertained.

Awash in unsettling, matter-of-fact contradictions that are deliciously open to interpretation, pic’s tone is a bit like “Gaslight” meets Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant.”

Architect Marc (Vincent Lindon) and his wife Agnes (Emmanuelle Devos) live in a beautiful multi-level Paris house that’s the height of classy contempo design. As they prepare to join friends (Mathieu Amalric, Macha Polikarpova) for dinner, Marc, on a whim, shaves off the moustache he’s apparently worn his entire adult life. The process is filmed with ritualistic intensity: Marc is meticulous, capturing stray hairs in a porcelain dish, cleaning up the evidence of foam and facial debris like a conscientious chambermaid.

But Agnes doesn’t notice the change. And, their friends don’t comment on the radical alteration either. Is this some kind of group plot, some conspiracy of silence?

When Marc says it’s time to halt the charade, Agnes hasn’t the slightest idea what he’s referring to. When he spells it out, she assures him he never had a moustache. Snapshots from a 2003 vacation would seem to settle the issue, but only increase the blossoming unease.

Helmer gets incredible mileage out of tale’s deceptively simple catalyst. Pic — told entirely from beleaguered protag’s p.o.v. — can be read as a deft riff on how men and women sometimes perceive the same situation differently; as a subjective glimpse of creeping paranoia; as a full-bore unraveling of one or more personalities; or as an ever-shifting buffet of all three approaches.

Lindon and Devos couldn’t be better as the well-matched, well-to-do couple whose romantic partnership appears to be under fire from the gods of perception.

Lensing and editing render each development and each new clue crystal clear despite narrative’s aggregate ambiguity. Rarely has the trippy maxim “Wherever you go — there you are” been so well depicted. An insistent Philip Glass violin concerto is used to fine effect.

The Moustache

France

Production

A Pathe Distribution release of an Anne-Dominique Toussaint presentation of a Les Films des Tournelles, Pathe Renn Production, France 3 Cinema production with participation of Canal Plus and TPS Star, in association with CNC, Cofimage 16, Uni Etoile 2 and with support from Ile-de-France Region, Fondation GAN, Procirep. (International sales: Pathe, Paris.) Produced by Anne-Dominique Toussaint. Directed by Emmanuel Carrere. Screenplay, Jerome Beaujour, Carrere, based on Carrere's novel.

Crew

Camera (color), Patrick Blossier; editor, Camille Cotte; music, Philip Glass' Concerto for Violin and Orchestra; production designer, Francoise Dupertuis; costume designer, Elisabeth Tavernier; sound (Dolby), Laurent Poirier, Herve Guyader, Emmanuel Croset; associate producer, Romain Le Grand; assistant director, Elizabeth Marre. Reviewed at Forum des Images, Paris, April 27, 2005. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Directors Fortnight.) Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Vincent Lindon, Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Hippolyte Girardot, Cylia Malki, Macha Polikarpova, Teresa Li, Yuen Hei Poon.

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