When reviewing a movie, critics tend to trawl through the elements that made it work, things like clever plotting, intense performances, lavish set design and the like. But we often seem to overlook one of the most essential elements of cinema: sex appeal.

Perhaps this is because in a good film, the hottie factor is a bonus, like the frothy head on a latte. A bad film, meanwhile, can curdle sex appeal entirely, making it seem almost like a parody of itself. (Think Joseph Fiennes and Heather Graham in Chen Kaige’s “Killing Me Softly.”)

It’s those borderline films — almost, but not quite there — where a little sex appeal can really make the difference between something watchable and the fast-forward button. Tastes differ, but this critic can instantly think of recent films where the on-screen presence of Emmanuelle Beart, Beatrice Dalle or Shu Qi was about the only reason to keep watching through the last reel.

Une aventure
Director Xavier Giannoli
Run Time 107 minutes
Language French
Opens Opens March 31, 2007

“Une aventure,” a 2005 French release only now finding its way into local cinemas, is one such film. Typically French fare of the auteurist persuasion, it manages to take a slightly ponderous script and render it as something eminently watchable thanks to the compelling, pheromonal performance by France’s most talented young sex symbol, Ludivine Sagnier. Sagnier plays a young woman named Gabrielle who has a slight problem: somnambulism. She awakens at night and wanders, unconsciously, in a trance state, walking barefoot into traffic, and within inches of losing her life.

It’s there, in the pouring rain, that 20-something Julien (Nicolas Duvauchelle, Sagnier’s real-life partner since they fell for each other on set) first spots her. Julien has just moved into this Parisian neighborhood, renting a flat with his girlfriend Cecile (Florence Loiret-Caille). Maybe it’s an unconscious fear of encroaching domesticity, or a craving for a little adventure by a meek video-librarian, but Julien finds himself irres- istibly drawn to this beautiful night wanderer.

Gabrielle represents a cocktail dangerously intoxicating to any man: desirable and unstable, and desperately in need of protection. Julien takes the plunge, and the second time he spots Gabrielle wandering the streets in a daze, he follows her back into her apartment. There he cautiously stalks her, all the way to her bedroom, glimpsing signs of danger from the chaos of strewn clothes and bloodstains.

Director Xavier Giannoli has obviously seen “Blue Velvet,” a feeling that’s reinforced when Gabrielle’s gangster-ish boyfriend Louis (Bruno Todeschini) turns up. Giannoli plays things a lot straighter than Lynch, though, and also lacks that director’s flair for vivid characterizations and unsettling menace. “Une aventure” develops as a psycho-sexual suspense flick, but lacks a bit of oomph on all those levels.

Julien gradually insinuates his way into Gabrielle’s life. He learns that Louis is married, and keeping Gabrielle as his mistress. He also learns, from a videotape he stole from Gabrielle’s flat, that things are a bit wild for this girl; snatches of tape reveal her having a compromising situation with her Algerian maid Djemila (Estelle Vincent) or firing a pistol given to her by Louis. Ominous bits of dialogue drift by, but Julien only becomes more determined to be her Prince Charming. He thinks he will save Gabrielle from this voracious older man, who seems indifferent to the psychological torment that is probably causing her to sleepwalk. What Julien fails to admit to himself, though, is how much his good intentions — indeed, his good sense — is being clouded by lust. Saving this lost girl isn’t simply chivalrous but also a way into her pants. In classic film noir fashion, Julien will pay a hard price for this by the last reel.

It’s Sagnier’s film, though, and she turns up the heat with the same kind of casual, feral sexuality that gained her so much attention in Francois Ozon’s “Swimming Pool.” Unlike, say, a Beart or a Deneuve, she can inhabit a strappy black dress with an indifferent attitude that suggests she’s unaware of the effect she is having on men, something that is entirely more provocative. Sagnier has also mastered the art of expression through the eyes, using those pale grays of hers to throw a gaze both searching and enticing. She’s a smart enough actress not to be pigeon-holed as a sex kitten — “I don’t do nudity for fame or to become popular, because that only lasts so long. Look at Brigitte Bardot,” she’s been quoted as saying — but she does it quite well when she chooses too, and that’s certainly the case with “Une aventure.”

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