Movies about voyeurs should be nothing if not titillating, and the French film Monsieur Hire certainly qualifies though in a refined, ''tasteful'' way. It's about a lonely, middle-aged bachelor, Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc), who begins to look in on the apartment of the young woman across the courtyard. Since she's played by Sandrine Bonnaire, the ravishingly erotic actress who starred in A Nos Amours and Vagabond, it's not hard to sympathize.
For hours, Monsieur Hire stands by that window, his face a mask of frozen longing. He may be a Peeping Tom, but he's no pervert. He's a soulful, Victorian obsessive who isolates himself from the world and then gazes through windows to revel in what he's missing. All the while, he cultivates his ache by playing the same phonograph record over and over again a piano quartet whose plaintive, seesawing chords are like the sound of resignation.
The movie is about Hire's dawning awareness that his sexual fixations are, in truth, romantic. He has fallen in love with the woman across the courtyard, and so all of a sudden his voyeur's agony is doubled. It's not just that he must look and not touch. Now, even if he could touch, he knows she would never be in love with him.
Michel Blanc has sad puppy eyes, a tight little mouth, and a perfectly white, bald dome; he looks like the ''before'' picture of Sy Sperling in the Hair Club for Men ad. What makes the movie work is that Blanc never lets our sympathy for Monsieur Hire lapse into syrupy pity. He gives a perfectly contained, melancholy performance, yet on some level he lets us know that this man has done it to himself that his heartsick longings are encased in an armor of pride.
In its mixture of lyricism and delicate kinkiness, Monsieur Hire often recalls the 1984 Man of Flowers; like that movie, it's both compelling and limited. You're always aware that the eroticism is a tease-that despite its surface audacity, the movie isn't going to get into the kind of squeamish, subterranean feelings David Lynch does. Adapted from a novel by Georges Simenon, Monsieur Hire is a little too ''classically'' dark and fatalistic. The plot, which hinges on the murder of a young woman, is involving in a conventional way, yet it isn't tricky enough to work on the mystery-thriller level as a Rear Window with only one window.
Still, Blanc's sad, severe performance holds you, and Sandrine Bonnaire whose dimples frame the most beautifully imperfect smile in contemporary movies makes the tenderest of femmes fatales. She's an egghead's object of desire.