Dir: Sandrine Veysset. France. 2001. 97 mins.

Martha... Martha resumes many of the themes of Sandrine Veysset's previous work, in particular her first feature, Will It Snow At Christmas': deeply damaged families living on the poverty line, a mother with suicidal tendencies and, more generally, the pervasive undercurrent of emotional violence coursing through mundane everyday lives. While forcefully staged and distinguished by several superb performances, the movie is unlikely to achieve a breakthrough beyond the director's existing audience, but should shine at festivals, with potential bids from bolder arthouse buyers.

Martha (Valerie Donzelli) scrapes together a meagre living in a drab French provincial town selling second-hand clothes at street markets together with Reymond, her long-term boyfriend (Yann Goven), and their six-year-old daughter, Lise (Lucie Regnier). It's quickly apparent that all is not well when she visits her parents, and her mother barely acknowledges her and will not even say her name.

Compulsively dissatisfied and restless, Marthe descends unannounced upon her sister, Marie (Lydia Andrei), who now basks in an expensive hacienda in Spain with her Spanish husband and twin sons. Marie is no more delighted to see Marthe and her family than their mother was, and the visit ends in disaster and mutual recriminations, after hints at traumatic events from the women's childhood.

On one of her regular solo sorties to a nightclub, she ends up raped by two men and disappears. Reymond makes valiant efforts to rebuild a normal family life alone with his daughter. After Marthe's disappearance, the film's focus shifts to Lise, who is troubled and has lurid nightmares about dying (the only dream sequence in an otherwise strictly realist narrative).

Veysset shows relentlessly how family trauma is passed down through the generations, and the young Regnier is extraordinary as a bright, loving child whom we see becoming more and more disturbed as the result of her frightening experiences. Martha eventually surfaces, heavily sedated, in a mental hospital from where Reymond takes her to make a fresh start in a house in the country. But she is unable to rally and comes to a Virginia Woolf-like end (indeed Donzelli's mournful, heavy-lidded beauty resembles a little that of the doomed writer).

The title suggests a theme of doubling and split personality: Martha has an obsession with twins, both her nephews and the pair of twins she reads about in a newspaper story about a mother who jumped from a window with her children; the root of her illness may lie in schizophrenia. However the film frustratingly refuses to nail its exact source: there are references to the death of a baby brother, but it's not clear whether Marthe was responsible, simply feels responsible or even whether the whole episode is another of her fantasies.

Even so, Donzelli consistently burns up the screen as a woman who's profoundly volatile, self-centred and often downright scary, but also affectionate and vibrant in her better moments: one sees why the pragmatic, long-suffering Reymond, her childhood sweetheart (who may not even be Lise's real father), has stood by her through adversity.

Prod co OGNON.

Co-prods Arte, Rhone-Alps Cinema, Gimages.

French dist Pyramide.

Int'l sales Flach Pyramide.

Prod Humbert Balsan.

Cinematography Helene Louvart.

Prod des Thomas Pecke.

Ed Nelly Quettier.

Main cast Valerie Donzelli,Yann Goven, Lucie Regnier, Lydia Andrei.