Hell hath no fury like a budding young pianist scorned in "La tourneuse de pages," a tight little emotional thriller about a music lover who becomes a musician-hater. Scripter-helmer Denis Dercourt's sixth feature is spare but classy, with an impressively controlled perf by Deborah Francois (the young mother in the Dardenne Bros.' "L'enfant") opposite popular and spot-on vet Catherine Frot. A French pic in which a wealth of pregnant glances actually gives birth to something, beautifully scored venture will be welcome at fests, with niche play beyond Gaul a distinct possibility.
A professional viola player and conservatory professor who moonlights as a filmmaker, Dercourt has chronicled the lives of musicians with humor ("The Freelancers") and without ("My Children Are Different"). The tone here is inelectably sinister. The music and camera angles intimate that bad things are being orchestrated -- but just how many movements will be played out is up for grabs until nearly the end.
Petite, studious Melanie Prouvost (Julie Richalet), the only child of a butcher (Jacques Bonnaffe) and his wife (Christine Citti), practices diligently for an audition for tuition-free piano studies. On the big day, concert pianist Ariane Fouchecourt (Frot) is on the panel of judges.
Melanie's playing is fine until Ariane stops concentrating on Melanie's performance to sign an autograph. Her confidence shaken, Melanie blows the rest of the audition. Back home, she puts away her bust of Beethoven and locks the piano keyboard shut.
Next seen, Melanie, a poised twentysomething woman (Francois), arrives for an internship as a file clerk in a prestigious Paris law firm headed by famed attorney Jean Fouchecourt (Pascal Greggory). The boss' secretary tells Melanie her resume stood out because she wrote such a persuasive "letter of motivation." Melanie is motivated all right: Jean's wife is Ariane.
It would be unfair to reveal more of Melanie's M.O. except to say that she could be the granddaughter of Terence Stamp's character in Pasolini's "Theorem." Unlike Pasolini, Dercourt does nothing for sheer shock value -- well, next-to-nothing.
Frot convinces as an imperious artist whose talent is intact but whose nerves are shot in the wake of an unfortunate setback. Francois, who seemed every inch the devastated working class teen mother in "L'enfant," is self-possessed and coolly calculating, to excellent effect.
Performances of pieces by Shostakovich, J.S. Bach and Schubert are perfectly integrated with a contempo score that facilitates a mood of expectant unease. French title means "The Female Page Turner," in the sense of someone who turns sheet music during a performance.
Camera (color), Jerome Peyrebrune; editor, Francois Gedigier; music, Jacques Lemonnier; art director-costume designer, Antoine Platteau; sound (Dolby SRD/DTS Digital), Olivier Mauvezin, Benoit Hillebrant; assistant director, Rafaele Ravinet-Virbel; casting, Brigitte Moidon. Reviewed at Club 13 screening room, Paris, May 11, 2006. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Un Certain Regard.) Running time: 85 MIN.