French films explore intimacy, family life, and escaping routine

The themes are serious and the moods are often somber in a spate of major French-language movies opening in American theaters. This offers a welcome alternative to the creepy clowns and besieged panic rooms Hollywood is serving up these days.

Then again, similarities can be found between current Hollywood and overseas productions. While it's very different from "A Beautiful Mind" in subject and treatment, Olivier Assayas's intimate epic Les Destinées also takes account of several decades in the life of a well-intentioned but frequently troubled man.

The main character is a well-to-do Protestant clergyman involved in the Limoges porcelain industry near the turn of the 20th century.

After the end of his marriage, he falls in love with a much younger woman, complicating his passage through the World War I era and subsequent years of changing social conditions that shake long-standing assumptions of traditional families like his.

Assayas has made more exciting films – the inventive "Irma Vep" is the best example – and "Les Destinées," originally called "Les Destinées Sentimentales," is longer and more leisurely than it needs to be.

It's as elegant as any movie around, though, and boasts strong acting by a distinguished cast including Charles Berling as the minister and Emmanuelle Béart and Isabelle Huppert as the women in his life.

Huppert gives a truly brilliant performance in The Piano Teacher ("La Pianiste"), directed by Michael Haneke, today's most prominent Austrian filmmaker. She plays a musician whose obsessively respectable life masks deeper, darker desires.

These break through the surface when she becomes sexually fixated on a young man she's just met, disrupting the orderly existence she shares with her overly demanding mother and sparking self-destructive actions that build to the story's bleak conclusion.

Such bleakness isn't surprising from Haneke, who has explored negative aspects of modern life in movies such as "Funny Games" and "The Seventh Continent," finding barely submerged horrors in arenas ranging from family life to the entertainment media.

"The Piano Teacher," his most psychologically detailed film to date, arrives on US screens with several awards – including the grand jury prize and honors for best male and female performances – from last year's Cannes festival. Its grimness is relentless, so approach it with caution.

Time Out ("L'Emploi du temps") comes from director Laurent Cantet, one of the new breed of French filmmakers who are taking French cinema beyond Paris. The story of this superbly crafted drama moves between France and Switzerland.

The protagonist is a businessman who's become so disillusioned with his meaningless work routine that he's allowed himself to be fired and refuses to find another job. Concealing this from his family, he pulls in small amounts of money by luring friends into a false investment scheme; then he hooks up with a small-time criminal – unforgettably played by Serge Livrozet, in his movie debut as a former burglar – but abandons this when he finds it just as spirit-killing as ordinary work.

The story gathers power as he exhausts one option after another, making his future seem increasingly hopeless. Cantet's previous film, "Human Resources," also probed social and ideological problems linked with family and work.

He has rich insights into this material, and brings them alive through sensitive acting and powerful, unpretentious filmmaking. He's a director to watch, and "Time Out" is a movie not to miss.

• 'Les Destinées,' not rated, contains sexuality. 'The Piano Teacher,' not rated, contains sexual violence. 'Time Out,' rated PG-13, contains sexual material.

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