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The romantic melodrama has long faded into the category of films no longer of interest to most American moviegoers, but for those who miss such films, foreign filmmakers — especially the French — still enjoy provoking the strong emotions once delivered by such films as Max Ophuls' "Letter From an Unknown Woman," Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" or Tay Garnett's "One Way Passage."

Demonstrating how fully alive such films still are in foreign climes is Zabou Brietman's "Someone I Loved," the opening-night film at Col-Coa festival, which premiered ahead of its May 6 release in France and Belgium.

In the film, based on Anna Gavalda's novel, an aging husband, more dead than alive inside, recounts the lost love of his life, which the audience sees in flashback. The linchpin of this confessional is the recent abandonment of his daughter-in-law, a mother of two, by his own son.

She's a basket case, uncertain where to turn or what to do. How comforting this tale is for her is hard to say, but she at least gets caught up enough in the late-night telling to momentarily forget her own travails.

The story uses jets and international hotels the way "Brief Encounter" uses the train station. Pierre (Daniel Auteuil) runs a family business, yet this takes him out of the country to places like Hong Kong, where he meets a translator, Mathilde (Marie-Josee Croze). He is a married man, long settled into a comfortable though dull bourgeois existence that permits frequent absences from his wife and annoying children. Pierre falls for Mathilde at first sight.

The heady exuberance of nonstop sex, romantic dinners and strolls in a foreign city is undercut by the knowledge that this kind of thing can't last — unless, of course, Pierre abandons his family to reinvent his life. But what his son was able to, he chose not to do, thus leaving himself open to the sad regret that has haunted him every day since.

The 20-year age difference between the leads raises issues that the movie, written by Brietman and Agnes de Sacy, might not have intended. The spark of passion is convincing enough to a point, but some might not quite see what Mathilde sees in this otherwise workaholic stuffed shirt that causes her to let the affair continue across several continents for four years.

Greatly aiding the writer- director's cause is Krishna Levy's understated score with a hint of melancholy and Michel Amathieu's sparkling cinematography that beautifully contrasts the antiseptic quality of hotel lobbies and hallways with the vibrant romance that occurs in its guest rooms.

Auteuil manages a dual role: the middle-aged man pleasantly baffled and confused by the overwhelming impact of undiluted love and the older man left battered by its memory. Croze magnificently captures the inner turmoil and conflicts of a woman who knowingly walks into a trap.

Florence Loiret-Caille as the distraught daughter-in-law and Christiane Millet as Pierre's bereft wife demonstrate the emotional pain of being the third angle in a romantic triangle. (partialdiff)
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