MOVIE director Agnieszka Holland has an unusual trademark these days: a fondness for double titles. Her lively hit "Europa Europa," about a Jewish boy's scrappy fight for survival during the Nazi era, established her as a major talent with American audiences. Now her latest picture, "Olivier Olivier," is bidding to raise her prominence higher yet.
One element that makes "Olivier Olivier" quite different from "Europa Europa" is that the twice-over title of the new movie is fully justified by the story it tells.
As the film begins we meet 9-year-old Olivier, who lives with his parents and 11-year-old sister in the heart of the French countryside. His father is a veterinarian, his mother looks after the household, and everyone seems content aside from the usual small frictions of family life.
One day Olivier's mother sends him to grandmother's house with a basket of food, but he never reaches his destination, abruptly vanishing along the way. Did he run away from home, get kidnapped by an unknown enemy, or come to some other harm?
The police have no idea, and the Duval family is nearly ripped apart by anxiety.
A local police officer can't forget the case, however, even after he's transferred to Paris with a completely different assignment. He keeps wondering if Olivier is alive and well somewhere, and when he arrests a young troublemaker who's the age Olivier would now be - six years after the tragic disappearance - he suspects he's found the boy at last. Olivier's mother joyfully welcomes the discovery, takes her long-lost son back home, and celebrates his return with neighbors and family.
The only person not sharing the happy mood is Olivier's sister Nadine, who isn't convinced the new arrival is really her missing brother.
True, the boy now living in her home knows all the answers to personal questions about Olivier's past, but perhaps he could have learned these facts some other way. In any case, the vibrations between him and the others don't seem quite right to Nadine, whose own interactions with the maybe-Olivier begin to take on an increasingly sexual nature.
The story of "Olivier Olivier" is based on events that actually occurred in France some years ago. In bringing them to the screen, Ms. Holland does not merely capitalize on their suspenseful elements, as most other filmmakers would probably have done.
Rather, she uses them as the vehicle for a provocative study of the relationship between family life and personal identity, both of which she finds quite mysterious and impossible to pin down. Human beings are enormously complex creatures, she appears to be saying, and when they dwell in family units they are more intricate and complicated yet.
Therefore the task of an honest filmmaker is not to spin out simple yarns about familiar emotions, but to explore the enigmas and conundrums that make individuals as richly fascinating as they are.
For this reason, "Olivier OIivier" is most successful during its most mysterious and even mystical moments, when Holland seems to revel in the hidden dimensions of her characters. As the film becomes more conventional in its later scenes, eventually winding down with a factual explanation of the story's central mystery, it becomes progressively less effective.
Another problem is the movie's exploitation of an apparently homosexual character as the ultimate villain of the story, which may be true to the facts of the real-life case but smacks of gay-baiting in the context of today's frequently anti-homosexual movie scene.
THESE quarrels aside, "Olivier Olivier" is resonantly directed by Ms. Holland, whose grasp of the filmmaking craft is growing more certain from one project to the next; and it's expertly acted by Gregoire Colin as the title character in his teenage phase, Francois Cluzet and Brigitte Rouan as his parents, Marina Golovine as his sister, and the marvelous Jean-Francois Stevenin as the dedicated detective.
Already praised at various film fests (including the New York Film Festival, where it was presented last autumn as the closing-night attraction), it is now arriving in theaters and has every expectation of surpassing "Europa Europa" as a cinematic conversation piece.
* `Olivier Olivier' has an R rating. It contains a certain amount of nudity and sensuality, including possible incest, and some violence and vulgar dialogue in addition to its disturbing climax and its basic theme of a young boy's disappearance.