Dir: Claude Miller. France-Canada. 2001. 102mins

Veteran director Claude Miller brings a calm control and authority to the elaborately plotted Betty Fisher Et Autres Histoires, a demanding blend of psychological thriller and ensemble melodrama. Slow-burning but always absorbing, the film ambitiously attempts to cover a wide range of characters and developments which enrich the texture of the central tale but dilute a little of the suspense. Likely to appeal to the same, upscale market which was drawn to Miller's 1998 feature La Classe De Neige - which tied for the Jury Prize at Cannes - Betty Fisher registered 143,809 admissions from 139 screens in two weeks after opening in France at the end of October.

Unpredictable in his choice of subject matter, Miller scored a notable success 20 years ago with Garde A Vue and is therefore no stranger to the intensity of a character-driven thriller. Here, he takes his inspiration from The Tree Of Hands, a bestselling novel by British crime writer Ruth Rendell, which he has seamlessly transferred to the wintry anonymity of suburban Paris. Hitchcock's influence is felt in an attention-grabbing opening sequence on a train when an unhinged mother stabs her daughter with a pair of scissors. The grand guignol potential soon retreats into the shadows but the power and psychology of the maternal instinct is to prove a crucial element to the story.

Now all grown up, daughter Betty (Kimberlain) is a successful writer with a young son and about to welcome her mother Margot (Garcia) on a trip from Spain. Guilt and resentment still simmer beneath their surface civility. When the son falls to his death from a window, Betty abandons herself to grief while the manic Margot tries to compensate for a lifetime of inadequacy by kidnapping a little boy as a substitute. The boy in question belongs to promiscuous white trash waitress Carole (Seigner) who does not seem entirely distraught at his disappearance. When Betty realises what has happened, she is already so attached to the boy that she is unable to contemplate letting him go.

Unfolding under a series of chapter headings - Betty's Story, Alex's Story etc - the film constantly shifts focus, adding characters and twists as it widens the net of those implicated in the kidnap of the boy. Distinguished by a masterful sense of economy, each individual story becomes like a jigsaw puzzle piece that gradually enhances your sense of the bigger picture. The deliberate, step-by-step approach lends psychological credibility to a complicated set of motivations, thus rendering the climactic flurry of twists and turns much harder to dismiss as far-fetched. Everything comes together like a precision-engineered watch for the final story, entitled The Last Day, in which all the outstanding issues are resolved in a tidy and satisfying fashion.

The Tree Of Hands (also known as Innocent Victim in some territories) was previously filmed in 1989 by director Giles Foster as a crude, heavy-handed thriller with Helen Shaver in the lead role and Lauren Bacall as the deranged mother. Although relocated to Paris, Miller's film is far more faithful to the intricacies and ironies of Rendell's work and a much more pleasurable experience on every level of performance, screenplay and sensibility.

Prod co: Les Films De la Boissiere, UGC YM
Fr dist: UFD-UGC Fox Distribution
Int'l sales: President Films
Prod: Yves Marmion, Annie Miller
Scr: Claude Miller, based on the Ruth Rendell novel
Cinematography: Christophe Pollock
Prod des: Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko
Ed: Veronique Lange
Mus: Franic Dompierre
Main cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Nicole Garcia, Mathilde Seigner, Luck mervil, Edouard Baer