The latest thriller from Claude Chabrol, the "French Hitchcock",* suffers a bit from being remarkably unthrilling for about 95 of its 115 minutes, although by the time it gets that far I don't suspect that most people will care all that much: being, as it is a Chabrol film, the genre mechanics aren't nearly as interesting as the deliberately artificial characters that those mechanics are acting upon, and what they reveal, in all their artifice, about Chabrol's views on life. I say this as though my knowledge of Chabrol is more than four or five movies deep in a career inching towards 70 films.

A Girl Cut in Twoi is about a love triangle, with a few extra spurs and wrinkles just to make sure you know that it's French: at the center is Gabrielle Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), a Parisienne weather girl, who attends a fateful book-signing at her mother's shop where she meets the two men who will come to dominate her life: aging literary genius Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand), living in seclusion in Lyons, and his youthful rival, Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel), heir to the Gaudens Laboratories fortune and all-around spoiled shitheel. Gabrielle instantly takes a liking to the older man, despite his obvious attachment to his wife and the fact that his treatment of her is clearly that of his kept woman in the big city, while she's mostly annoyed by Paul's insistent demands for attention, though eventually his sheer persistence wears her down into something like attraction.

Eventually, things play out in a modern-day retelling of the Evelyn Nesbit scandal, which is at least a pseudo-spoiler although to be honest, it's the least interesting part of the plot. What animates the bulk of the film is the set-up, exploring who the people are that let things get that far out of hand, and giving Chabrol plenty of excuses to flog his hobby-horse, the myriad reasons why the French bourgeoisie is the most unspeakably awful collection of people that ever slimed their way across the world's stage. This latter theme is generally made manifest through the completely horrid Gaudens family, not just Paul, a vicious and self-evidently insane brat, but through his mother Genviève, a villainness with ice in her veins played by Caroline Silhol to absolute scene-stealing perfection; there's also plenty attention of paid to the good-natured hypocrisy of Charles and his fellow intellectuals, notably his agent and friend Capucine (Mathilda May), a callous and hollow-eyed femme fatale who enables him in all sorts of wretched behavior.

But all that notwithstanding, the primary draw of the film's story is Gabrielle, the deceptively virginal heroine whose corruption is at the heart of the drama, and whose relative inability to handle the terrible situation she's thrust into gives the film its title. Her very name - "Deneige", or "of snow" - sets her up as the metaphorically pure figure in the movie, yet while snow is pure, it is also cold, and as the film goes on we find that Gabrielle has a certain frosty resolve that suggests, maybe, she wasn't quite as callow as we were led to believe at the start. This ambiguity about her character is possibly the film's finest trick, leaving us to wonder throughout whether she's a poor, impersonal girl being torn apart by the depravities of men, or if she's actually enjoying it all in some way (Chabrol referred to this entirely chaste, fully-clothed film as his first porno, which I assume refers to its embrace of the, let us say, less-conventional delights of human sexuality, all disguised with a great deal of sleight-of-hand). The question of Gabrielle, who she is and what she wants, is never resolved within the film, to which I say thank God. We have enough films spelling everything out for us already, and there's something deeply refreshing about a work that lets us project, and thereby confront, our own expectations and prejudices onto the happenings.

One might expect that this would all leave Gabrielle a bit of a cipher, and on the page she probably is; which is why it was such a grand victory for Chabrol to cast Sagnier in the central role. First brought to international attention for her mostly-topless turn in Swimming Pool (the director claims that the role which won her the current part was in fact Tinkerbell in the 2003 Peter Pan), Sagnier is, I think it's fair to say, one of the most beautiful young people in the cinema, but she's a good enough actress to use her beauty as a tool rather than a crutch. It's not incidental that Gabrielle is gorgeous; that's exactly why Charles and Paul fall head over heels for her, and the audience (at least, the part that is sexually attracted to women) does much the same. What we aren't prepared for, thanks to generations of films reducing women to the status of eye-candy, is that this beautiful woman actually has a mind and motivations, and it's when Gabrielle starts to assert herself that the film shifts from being a typically French snapshot of sexual obsession into being a much more interesting study of why people do the things they do, particularly when sex is involved. It's a fascinating character made that much greater by a savvy, wonderful performance, and insofar as Sagnier had to prove that she was more than a pretty face, she's done so in a most commanding fashion.

Having said all that, it's hard not to wonder if the film is any more than just a really fine character study with some exceptional performances (especially from the women in the cast). Despite the ubiquitous comparisons Chabrol isn't really anything like the Master of Suspense: he's not half the craftsman that Hitch was, although I'm not really qualified to say that he never was. A Hitchcock film would give you all that twisty character stuff while powering through a tremendously intricate and satisfying narrative, but A Girl Cut in Two lurches forward in bits and pieces, and the pacing makes no sense (late in the film, we learn that the events take place over more than a year; from the evidence we've seen thus far, it could just as easily be about seven or eight weeks). The editing is often sloppy, cutting across several minutes in a way that's meant to be efficient but looks really confusing. True, the compositions are tight, helped I am sure by the customarily great cinematographer Eduardo Serra, but they are the only tight element of the film's construction (that, and the director's usual precision with design; we learn a great deal about people just from the clothes they wear). We can doubtlessly be generous with Chabrol, who is after all 78 years old & has earned a break from the urgent rhythms of youth, but there's no getting around the fact that Girl is a saggy affair in places. That keeps it from being a great movie; happily, the perefect characterisations, however pre-determined, are quite enough to make sure that it's undeniably good.