I've said before (but not, I think, on this blog), that the modern French cinema consists of two kinds of movies: awful romantic comedies and fantastic thrillers. I stand by this reduction without hesitation. But it does require just a bit of tempering; for one thing, it completely ignores the recent emergence of what appears to be a full-blown subgenre of thrillers that are specifically about the high-stakes world of piano-playing. Such a weird subject to crop up so often, and yet so damn French at the same time - and thus 2001's The Piano Teacher and 2005's The Beat That My Heart Skipped are now followed by the sneaky and altogether pleasing, if undeniably derivative The Page Turner.

It's a sign of how well director Denis Dercourt handles rising tension that the film is already jangling to one's nerves in the opening sequence, before we've been introduced to the plot or indeed to any of the main actors. A little girl practices at the piano, and somewhere else a man chops apart meat, while a vaguely atonal piano tune plays out underneath. It becomes clear that the tune we hear and the tune the girl is practicing are not the same thing at all - her hands are not moving even slightly in keeping with the music - and somehow, that turns out to be the creepiest part of all.

None of this is precisely what one might call "subtle," but damn me if it isn't effective anyway. It's a grand unsettling opening for a film that thereupon never manages to develop a baseline for "normal." The audience never finds balance, and thus is the way of a top-drawer thriller.

Eventually, it becomes clear that the girl is Mélanie Prouvost (Julie Richalet), the man is her father, a butcher, and in the very near future, Mélanie will be auditioning for entrance to a conservatory, after which her future shall be assured. During her exam, however, she is distracted by the inattention of Ariane Fouchécourt (Catherine Frot), the superstar pianist on the admissions panel, and muffs up the piece mightily.

Some years later, Mélanie is grown-up (and played by Déborah François), and she decides to take a languorous revenge on Ariane, coming first to take care of the older woman's child, then to become her trusted page-turner, then to inflaming her lust. God, that is such a quintessentially French plot.

On paper, this is pure hokum, which is not necessarily a liability for a thriller. On screen, the great performances, and Dercourt's great control of the frame, are so damned effective that we can perhaps be forgiven for overlooking the more overripe aspects of the script.

Above all things, this is Déborah François's movie. She plays the twentyish Mélanie as a pure of pure ice, and it's that stark inhumanity that drives the mood of the whole film. François manages to strip all of the flexibility from her body, even her face: wearing one expression without ever so much as wrinkling her brow, and walking without swinging her right arm (I cannot begin to describe how unsettling it is to watch a person walk while swinging only one arm), she doesn't seem like a person so much as a sort of vengeance robot. The stiffness with which François portrays Mélanie somehow makes the surreality of her revenge plot not only believable, but logical.

The other great performance in the film, surprisingly, is also Mélanie, in her guise as a ten-year-old. Julie Richalet may or may not be a good actress - this is her first and only performance - but somehow, she finds an embryonic version of the same intensity that François taps into. The look on her face as she plays piano - apparently, without the aid of a double - is overwhelming, as though there is no world outside of her and the music. It's a small performance, but it's impossible to forget.

By highlighting those two performances, I don't mean to slight Catherine Frot, whom I have seen and loved in films prior to this. It's simply that Ariane is a passive character, all longing and despair. Certainly, Frot nails this. The abrupt turn to Sapphic melodrama in the late second act would make no sense if she weren't able to seed the earlier part of her performance with hints and innuendos to that effect. But the film does not foreground her in the same way, and she never gets to stare down the camera like François.

As for Dercourt, he has an impeccable control over tension. I already mentioned the opening scene; as the film progresses, he switches gears a bit and moves to a visual vocabulary that implies sneaking, rather than brutality. This is a film much filled with windows and doorways and halls, and these are usually positioned just close enough to the edge of the frame to call the most possible attention to themselves. I can't quite explain how, but it lends the film the strong sense that there's always someone hiding just out of sight, just about to break into the scene, always waiting and observing. It's not a scheme that highlights offscreen space quite so much as it highlights other rooms that we can't see, and the tension of wondering who or what is in that room coils tighter and tighter as the film progresses.

Of course, none of this adds up to a damn thing. It's precision crafting that has a hollow interior. The very fact that Mélanie is so anti-human locks out our ability to engage with the characters; the precision of the mise en scène is cold and alienating. But that's French thriller cinema for you: that coldness is the reason in and of itself, and frankly, it's fun once in a while to just sit and bask in precise filmmaking every now and then. And it doesn't get much more precise than the clockwork that The Page Turner has instead of a heart.