Dir: Catherine Breillat. France. 2001. 82 mins.

While too slight, both dramatically and visually, to be entirely persuasive as a cinema feature, Catherine Breillat's contribution to a 10-part series commissioned by French broadcaster Arte "on the theme of difference and equality between the sexes" is an incisive and elegant chamber piece ideally attuned to the small screen. Breve Traversee - or Brief Crossing - might count among the director's minor works, but it continues her ongoing exploration of women's sexual fantasies. Femme-oriented distributors might take advantage of the publicity generated by Breillat's latest feature, A Ma Soeur (Fat Girl), which plays this week at the New York Film Festival prior to a US release. It's also a very effective launch for its two unknown stars, in particular Sarah Pratt.

Inspired, according to Breillat by a "nostalgia for great Transatlantic ocean liners," the story applies the same sense of exotic romance to the cross-channel ferry between Cherbourg and Portsmouth, to droll and incongruous effect. This grungy setting provides a backdrop for the brief encounter between Alice (Pratt), a British woman in her Thirties, and Thomas, a 16-year-old French schoolboy (Gilles Guillan).

The couple meets at the ferry's self-service counter. Alice is involved in an argument about her portion of chips when Thomas gallantly springs to her help, and they share a table together before moving to the disco. Here, they watch a magic act in which the conjurer pierces his female assistant with swords and which is seen by Alice as a morbid metaphor for male-female relationships. "I like men who make me suffer," she explains.

Drinking heavily, she talks of her disillusionment with men and her own unhappy, childless marriage, eventually confiding that she has left her husband the previous day. Ingenuous and optimistic, Thomas is puzzled by her, but just as fascinated and very anxious to impress. Although Alice is assumed by the staff to be his mother - a mistake which she happily encourages - a flirtation develops and they retire to her improbably huge cabin for some spirited and frankly presented love-making.

A controlled piece which follows the classical French dramatic unities of time, place and action, Breve Traversee muses on the meeting of opposites: age and experience, Latin and Northern European, male and female. Its insights are perhaps slight, but a last-scene twist requires the viewer completely to reassess Alice's motives. And both performers hold one's interest throughout: Guillan projects an attractive warmth while the self-possessed Pratt, with her Titian hair and fluent, unaccented French, emerges as a powerful screen presence.

Prod co: Arte
Int'l Sales: Roissy Films
Exec prods: Jean-Pierre Guerin, Pierre Chevalier
Prod: Mat Troi Day
Cinematography: Eric Gautier
Prod des: Frederique Belvaux
Ed: Pascale Chavance
Main cast: Sarah Pratt, Gilles Guillain.