FIRST RUN/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital/104 Mins./Not Rated

Cast: Nicole Garcia, Bernard Giraudeau, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Ludivine Sagnier, Robinson Stévenin, Julie Depardieu, Yves Jacques, Anne Le Ny, Marc Betton, Michel Piccoli.
Credits: Directed by Claude Miller. Screenplay by Miller, Julien Boivent, based on the play The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. Produced by Annie Miller. Director of photography: Gérard de Battista. Production designer: Jean-Pierre Kohut Svelko. Edited by Veronique Lange. Costume designer: Jacqueline Bouchard. Executive producer: Sylvestre Guarino. Co-producers: Denise Robert, Daniel Louis. A Les Films de la Boissiere/Cinemaginaire production, in association with Les Films Alain Sarde and France 3 Cinema. In French with English subtitles.

If this contemporary story about a beautiful, ambitious country girl causing strife in her lover’s artistic family seems Chekhovian, that’s because it is. Director Claude Miller (Alias Betty) neatly transplants Chekhov’s The Seagull from Russia to an idyllic home in rural France. In the final act, however, Miller departs from the play, shifting the characters to Paris where they make an autobiographical film within the film, a clever choice.

The focus of everyone’s attention, including the audience’s, is Lili, played by Swimming Pool’s Ludivine Sagnier. This time you don’t have to wait to see her undress; she does so instantly. She makes love in the grass to a high-cheekboned Adonis who we soon learn is the frustrated, experimental filmmaker son of a celebrated actress. The son, Julien (Robinson Stévenin), resents his mother, Mado (Nicole Garcia), for being involved with a commercially successful (read sellout) film director, Brice (Bernard Giraudeau). La Petite Lili’s opening credits alternate with shots of shimmering water and other arty effects, underscored by dissonant music. Before long we realize these scenes are part of Julien’s digital-video short, which he shows to his extended family to disappointing effect. Mado can barely contain her boredom, and Julien storms out before anyone can reassure him. Lili, who made her acting debut in Julien’s video, immediately shifts her sights to bigger game, the handsome, reserved Brice.

As mother and son helplessly observe Lili’s art of seduction, the other members of the household suffer their own heartbreak. The handyman’s daughter, Jeanne-Marie (Julie Depardieu), pines for Julien, who routinely ignores her. Jeanne-Marie’s mother (Anne Le Ny) cries over the neglect of her lover, the local doctor (Yves Jacques). And Mado’s older brother, Simon (Jean-Pierre Marielle), struggles with his health, cynicism and dislike of the country. Simon has every reason to find the company trying, but it is hard to sympathize with his criticism of his environs. Miller wisely sets his movie in Ile aux Moines, and cinematographer Gerard de Battista makes the most of its lush forests by the sea. The movie works best when it incorporates nature into the characters’ confrontations. When Lili convinces Brice to take a walk in the woods, it’s a foregone conclusion that he will eat the apple and take her to Paris.

Circular though it may be, this movie about movie people ending in the making of a movie about the moviemaker is generally satisfying. Julien survives the devastating loss of Lili by turning his suffering into art. It’s a bit pat, and one would imagine that this fiery young filmmaker would reshape his material somewhat instead of casting his mother, Brice and even Lili as themselves, but it’s fun to meet up with the characters five years later, and learn their fates (less dire than those allotted by Chekhov). The film explores the conflict between idealistic youth and pragmatic maturity, respecting each in turn, but succeeds best in underscoring the power of youthful sexuality. Sagnier’s silky-haired Lili is irresistible, especially before her transformation into a hot Parisian movie star. Garcia is certainly attractive and her Mado a force to be reckoned with, but she pales besides Sagnier’s bright, sensual newness. Chekhov might have appreciated the power of film to illuminate the pull of beauty.