WHEN it comes to mystery stories, Americans and Europeans have very different approaches. Americans like movies that move, their talent for making that kind of picture is envied in many other parts of the world. So their mysteries, like their other films, often put the emphasis on action and violence. Europeans, by contrast - particularly the French - tend to be fascinated more by character and atmosphere, a taste that gives their dramatic films a very different flavor.
``Monsieur Hire'' is an excellent example of this difference. A new psychological mystery from France, it's an absorbing picture, with a mood unlike that of any American film I've seen in a long time. But it doesn't move very much, at least until the climax, so you'd better be prepared to sink into it - on its own slow, almost meditative terms - if you're going to enjoy it.
The plot centers on Monsieur Hire, a man so quiet and mild-mannered that you might wonder if he's still breathing. He lives alone; his greatest passion appears to be bowling; and there's nothing about him to attract the slightest attention. He has his secrets, though, including the unpleasant fact that he's a voyeur, and that he has developed an obsession with a beautiful woman in a nearby apartment. She's no innocent herself - when she realizes there's a peeping tom in the neighborhood, she plays along with him and encourages him.
Events switch into high gear when they finally meet, and when he learns a secret about her life (or rather, her boyfriend) that puts their strange relationship on a very different level.
``Monsieur Hire'' is one of those movies that have press agents pleading with critics: Please don't give away the ending, or even too much of the story!
That's fair, since this is a mystery, and part of the fun is wondering what's going to happen next. On the other hand, the plot of ``Monsieur Hire'' may already be familiar to some Francophiles, since it's taken from a Georges Simenon novel and was filmed by French filmmaker Julien Duvivier, under the title ``Panique,'' back in 1946.
In any case, I'll only mention that while the story is involving, the ending struck me as a bit of let-down, not bold or original enough to cap the buildup that leads to it.
Still, the movie as a whole has an odd fascination that makes it worth seeing if you like a brooding psychological tale now and then. Michel Blanc gives a superb performance in the title role; he's as quiet and recessive as his character demands, yet he holds the screen as strongly as a movie star should.
This is his fifth movie with director Patrice Leconte, and you'd never guess that all the others have been comedies. Their collaboration here is as intense as it is gripping.
Alice, the object of Monsieur Hire's twisted affection, is marvelously played by Sandrine Bonnaire, who's known to Americans for such highly praised French movies as ``A Nos amours'' and especially Agn`es Varda's memorable ``Vagabond,'' in which she played a tragically rootless young drifter. She has a mixture of charm and vulnerability that's just right for the ambiguous foil who brings out the best and worst in Monsieur Hire's murky personality.
``Monsieur Hire'' is not a masterpiece of French cinema, and I think it was overpraised in early reviews that appeared after its showings in the Cannes, Toronto, and New York filmfests. But it's put together with great skill by director Leconte and such gifted collaborators as cinematographer Denis Lenoir and British composer Michael Nyman, who has done the music for all of Peter Greenaway's films. In all, it's a picture that gets under your skin, in a sly and insinuating way that French filmmakers seem to have mastered more thoroughly than any others.