'La Sparation' Separates From the Pack

France has been showering American moviegoers with riches since the days of silent cinema. None of this year's French offerings is more captivating than "La Sparation," which tells a small but insinuating story with characters so tenderly written and vividly acted that they will be recognizable to audiences of any nationality.

As the title hints, "La Sparation" is about a marriage that's slowly and sadly coming apart. This subject has been handled in countless melodramas on both sides of the Atlantic, of course, but what makes this treatment different is its lack of sensationalism, exploitation, or overstatement. It's as if director Christian Vincent knew this couple personally and wanted to explore their problems without risking the slightest suggestion of tactlessness or indiscretion.

The result is a series of compassionately filmed scenes from a marriage, delicate and sensitive from beginning to end.

Key to the movie's success is the acting by two of France's most luminous stars: Isabelle Huppert, whose career ranges from "The Lacemaker" and "Madame Bovary" to "Amateur" and some of Jean-Luc Godard's movies, and Daniel Auteuil, who captivated US audiences in "Jean de Florette," "Manon of the Spring," and "Queen Margot." Both are at their expressive best in "La Sparation," as is director Vincent.

Statistics show that Americans attend subtitled movies far less often than they used to, which means they may sacrifice the subtle pleasures of "La Sparation" because it doesn't have English dialogue. At a time when many criticize Hollywood for its frequent violence and vulgarity, how heartening it would be if audiences decided to support the maturity of "La Sparation" and other intelligently made imports - including such thoughtful French dramas as "An Autumn Tale" and "The Dreamlife of Angels," both coming soon - as an alternative to the slam-bang heroics of business-as-usual studios.

* Not rated; contains adult subject matter.

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