"Mark of an Angel" substitutes the usual suspenser suspects with two highly unusual mommies, both claiming kinship over the same sweet-faced little girl.

A subtle yet utterly engrossing Gallic thriller, “Mark of an Angel” substitutes the usual suspenser suspects with two highly unusual mommies, both claiming kinship over the same sweet-faced little girl. Featuring on-edge thesping by screen vets Catherine Frot and Sandrine Bonnaire, writer-director Safy Nebbou’s sophomore effort is the kind of nuanced character study the French do best, with plenty of stylistic flair to boot. Already sold in several Euro territories and showing solid opening numbers in Gaul mid-August, modest “Angel” should leave a heavenly B.O. mark, with sturdy enough wings to take it Stateside.

Revisiting the subject of his 2004 debut, “The Giraffe’s Neck,” actor-turned-helmer Nebbou once again examines the harrowing effects of long-term parent-child separation. While “Giraffe” offered an original take on the family road movie, “Angel” is a crafty exercise in classic genre filmmaking, but with enough restraint and thematic oomph to push it to arthouse levels.

Based on fact, this diabolical take on planned parenting depicts pharmacist Elsa Valentin (Frot), a divorced mother scraping by financially and battling for custody of her 10-year-old son (Arthur Vaughan Whitehead). Traumatized by the death of her infant daughter during a fire seven years’ prior, she crosses paths with 7-year-old Lola (Heloise Cunin) and is instantly convinced she’s her long-dead baby come to life.

Elsa first stalks, then shrewdly befriends Lola’s mom, the wealthy and seemingly perfect housewife Claire (Bonnaire, in her second collab with Nebbou). Elsa attempts to get as close to Lola as possible, fooling Claire’s loving hubby (Wladimir Yordanoff) while shafting her own son and bewildered parents (Michele Aumont, Michele Moretti).

When Elsa’s obsession with Lola grows too pathologically over-the-top, Claire tries to put a stop to their relationship before buried secrets rise to the surface.

Pic’s brewing tension builds on several well-executed setpieces seen from Elsa’s troubled p.o.v. From the unsettling children’s birthday party where she first spots Lola to the evocative school ballet show where she spookily admires her from the wings, suspense is rendered through visually engaging elements.

Both Frot (“The Page Turner”) and Bonnaire have already shown they can excel in discreet, suspense-fostering roles. Here they expertly play (and spat, during a painfully realistic fistfight) two opposites heading toward the same disturbing conclusion.

Perfs are abetted by convincing characterizations by Nebbou and co-writer Cyril Gomez-Mathieu (also production designer). Eric Guichard’s robust widescreen lensing mixes a monochrome thriller palette with mounting blue and green motifs.

Mark of an Angel

France

Production

A Diaphana Distribution release of a Diaphana Films, France 2 Cinema production, in association with Uni Etoile 5, Banque Populaire Image 8, Soficinema 3, with participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Michel Saint-Jean. Directed by Safy Nebbou. Screenplay, Nebbou, Cyril Gomez-Mathieu.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Eric Guichard; editor, Bernard Sasia; music, Hughes Tabar-Nouval; production designer, Cyril Gomez-Mathieu; costume designer, Corinne Jorry; sound (Dolby Digital), Frank Struys, Benoit Hillebrant, Anne Le Campion; assistant director, Alexandra Denni. Reviewed at UGC Cine Cite Les Halles 12, Paris, Aug. 18, 2008. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Catherine Frot, Sandrine Bonnaire, Wladimir Yordanoff, Antoine Chappey, Michel Aumont, Sophie Quinton, Michele Moretti, Arthur Vaughan Whitehead, Heloise Cunin.

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