Brief encounter

One lucky meeting is all it takes.

HAPPENSTANCE

written and directed by Laurent Firode with Audrey Tautou, Eric Feldman, and Faudel opens March 8 at Metro

DEFT AND CONSTANTLY surprising, Happenstance is a warm, devilishly original film made a year before Am鬩e but doomed to play under its shadow since it, too, has Audrey Tautou at the heart of its ensemble cast. That's OK; just consider Happenstance the thinking person's Am鬩e, 23 minutes shorter and without a single moment of tooth-rot.

You might also think of Happenstance under its original French title, The Beating of the Butterfly's Wings, a particularly poetic take on chaos theory suggesting that butterfly wings fluttering over the Atlantic Ocean could eventually cause a tsunami in the Pacific.

In the hands of Laurent Firode, a veteran short-film director making his first feature, cause and effect seem almost as delicate as those wings. (What do you expect from a man whose favorite author is Borges and who reveres that 1965 Polish enigma, The Saragossa Manuscript, the ultimate boxes-within-boxes film?)

Firode confines his story to 24 hours, drawing his characters from every age and social class across a wide cross section of Paris and its surrounding countryside. Within his dozens of ingenious crisscrossings, we meet illegal Moroccan immigrants; an intellectual with a hunch about destiny at a city park; a cheating suburban husband, his wife, and his mistress; a barfly; a pair of Russian tourists; a security guard; an Algerian waiter; a fledgling museum guard; and a pair of roommates, one of whom works at an appliance store.

That would be Ir讥 (Tautou), on her way to work when a bubbling fellow subway rider extracts her birth date from her, then checks her horoscope. It seems that Ir讥 will meet "the love of her life" this very day. Polite yet not overly impressed, Ir讥 gets off at her stop, but she's already attracted Youn賠(Algerian rai singer Faudel), and only partly because it seems they have the same birth date.

NO SOONER DOES Firode cement a character in our mind than he brings in another one or two, delicately and with a perfect sense of design. One of the most memorable of these is Luc (Eric Feldman), so beaten down by his domineering mother that, at 30, he's grateful for a job as a museum guard. After we watch him fail, utterly, to help a homeless stranger in the subway, we're unexpected witnesses to Luc's real gift: self-embroidery. Chatting up a stranger, becoming the charming, modest hero of this subway incident, Luc is one of life's great storytellers. As things turn out, he may be able to live up to his own fictions.

All the while, Firode adds more seemingly random incidents—comic, desperate, bitterly satisfying—which may be adjustments the universe needs to bring Ir讥 and Youn賠together from their opposite corners of Paris.

As Firode racks up the tension between each incident, his catalysts are even less than humble: a cockroach, a tossed pebble, a handful of sand. He makes transitions from the splat of pigeon droppings landing on tourists below and from the delicacy of a tiny leaf that seems to blow from a grandmother's garden to her grandson's hair, half a city away. And even when we're sure of the ending's inevitability, there's a grace note of suspense.

While we're considering the universe's great What Ifs, think what might have happened to this gem of a film if the mighty machinery of Miramax had been thrown behind it, instead of the quintuple-Oscar-nominated Am鬩e. As it is, we get the pure satisfaction of unhyped discovery and perhaps a bit of Firode's own passionate conviction that there's a reason things work out the way they do. With a debut this special, there certainly should be.

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