Dir: Laetitia Masson. France. 2002. 125mins

Life is a lie. History is what you make it out to be. And so is this film. Seemingly created for and by Isabelle Adjani, La Repentie is either a triumphant return to the cinema for the enigmatic French screen goddess, after three years of absence - it is 14 since her Oscar-nominated performance in 1988's Camille Claudel - or a lush and expensive vanity project. Once tipped for Cannes, La Repentie is a melodrama that has worked only modestly with French cinema-goers (it registered 85, 238 admission from 138 screens in its first week). But, full of great looks and dramatic gestures, it could just work for foreign art audiences who do not want their stylish French pictures too deep.

Adjani, who is a national icon in France, despite fraught relations with the pop-press, these days says she wants to be thought of 'as an actress at work.' But it seems that she still likes to cling to an air of mystique.

The story starts with a woman (know as charlotte or Leila throughout the film) buying a ticket at a train station, seemingly little caring where it takes her. Arriving in a sunny Nice, she hogs the screen with a solo dance along the promenade that lasts three or four minutes. Thereafter she regains her composure, dons over-size dark glasses and strict black tailleur, and floats into a super-luxury hotel. When the femme fatale routine gets her nowhere, she is soon imploring the manager for a job - any job.

While it may be difficult to believe any of this, it is easy to watch. Whether she is the hippy-chic streetgirl, brunette-with-balls or would be washer-upper, Adjani look stunning. Despite her 48 years, she never looks more than 25, resembling a china doll with her piercing royal-blue eyes and raven hair.

The film gets going when she hooks up with a man (Sami Frey). Veteran Frey, looking like a well-roasted and beaky Jean-Pierre Leaud, pays a small fortune for her company: strictly no intimacy. They have a scratchy relationship, which seems doomed to fail. But they soldier on and slowly, we learn more about each of them. Monsieur Paul is a lawyer whose wife committed suicide. She in turn claims to have been in prison for four years for a murder and to have been released only when she turned over her accomplice and former boyfriend. This may explain why she is being followed, at a distance, by someone (Naceri), who we are told may possibly be the boyfriend's brother. Then again he may not.

Later, she steals a bundle of Paul's money and runs away, to be alone. He tracks her down and humblingly they visit her dead-end pensioner parents. This scene should be more powerful. But there is genuine emotion when they confront her stalker and after a scuffle the stalker ends up dead. Their bonding is underway and is completed when they take a trip to Morocco in order to catch up with another part of her past.

Which parts to take seriously are perhaps less important than the air of mystery and impulsiveness that director Masson (En Avoir [Ou Pas] and Love Me) seems determined to convey. Over-long, the film is littered with petulantly stubbed-out cigarettes, pointless sequences, such as one where Charlotte/Leila crashes a wedding party, and shocked faces that cry out to be slapped.

Themes of starting over and inventing a past are very Adjani, and they are not very deeply examined. Still, sumptuous photography by Masson regulars Heberle and Diane and an uplifting score by Jocelyn Pook (Eyes Wide Shut) help lift La Repentie above the mean.

Prod cos: ARP Selection, France 3 Cinema
Fr dist:
ARP Selection
Int'l sales: ARP
Laurent Petin, Michele Halberstadt
Didier Daeninckx, Masson, adapted from Daeninckx's novel
Cinematography: Antoine Heberle, Georges Diane
Prod des:
Arnaud de Moleron
Ed: Dominique Faysse
Music: Jocelyn Pook
Main cast: Isabelle Adjani, Sami Frey, Samy Naceri