As a vehicle for the splendid French actor Emmanuelle Devos (Kings and Queen)—an emotional shape-shifter whose tremendously expressive countenance can go from fear to giddy delight to abysmal self-loathing within a few heartbeats—Frdric Fonteyne's intense, slow-burning tale of simmering jealousy and corrosive sexual obsession in 1930s Belgium is a minor-key marvel. Devos plays Elisa, a happily married mother of two who lovingly dotes on her foundry-worker husband, Gilles (Cornillac). But as winter arrives, Gilles grows cold and distant, and Elisa—about to give birth to their third child—entertains a creeping suspicion that he's having an affair with her smoldering younger sister, Victorine (Smet).
Adapted from a 1937 novel, this exemplary character study is oddly short on dialogue, leaving the story's overall tone largely in the hands of cinematographer Virginie Saint-Martin, whose elegant chiaroscuro compositions perfectly capture the atmosphere of disquiet and painful uncertainty. But the movie belongs to Devos, who brilliantly conveys Elisa's lacerating doubt with nary a word.
When Gilles finally comes clean about his infidelity, Elisa's stoicism and continued catering to his every need is as disturbing as his explosive revelation; it marks the beginning of a journey that's at once saintly, heroic and mind-bogglingly self-destructive. Female sacrifice might be an old-fashioned, prewar ideal, but as cinematic raw material, it never hurt so good. (Opens Fri; IFC Center.)