IN "MONSIEUR Hire," the title character (Michel Blanc) is a bald, elegantly dressed man who spends most of his evenings at home, peering into the apartment of an attractive blond woman. This woman, who seems totally unaware of -- how you say in French? -- drapes, finally notices Monsieur Peeping Tom when his face is illuminated one night by a flash of lightning.
Rather than call the cops, the woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) pursues Mr. Hire with seemingly seductive intentions. When he's leaving his apartment, she purposely spills a bag of tomatoes at his feet, then gathers les tomates on all fours while he watches with a mixture of shock and rapture. She seems to enjoy being watched. Is this a psychological matchmaking between two secretly erotic eccentrics? Or just a film about A Man, A Woman and their Vegetables?
Well actually, it's neither. It's French director Patrice Leconte's rather contrived attempt to join the esteemed psychological drama ranks, headed by masters such as Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Bresson and Roman Polanski. Adapting this from Maigret's mystery novel, "Les Fianc ailles de Monsieur Hire" ("Mr. Hire's Engagement"), Leconte (who normally makes comedies) has created an occasionally diverting but ultimately mishandled story.
It's hard to explain this without giving the plot away, but one of the characters has something on the other. It's a rather important element that makes you completely reassess that initial relationship. Unfortunately, Leconte and co-adaptor Patrick Dewolf withhold this information until late in the movie. Just to make sure it's a complete surprise, they provide no clues, no inkling that it's coming. So when this significant turnaround is finally revealed (since the movie's based on a Maigret book, you know it has to do with murder), it rings false. You feel like you've been cheated.
As for getting inside Hire's head we are similarly kept in le noir. Aspects of his character are presented to us in little tidbits: Hire, we find out (with the help of police inspector Andre Wilms) is an anglicization of Hirovich. He has a police record. His neighbors hate him but he's nice to his pet mice. He systematically shuns social encounters, yet he's a Gallic party animal in the bowling alley where, to boisterous applause, he bowls blindfolded or from between his legs. He visits whores and snaps at them, but he closes his eyes demurely when he sees Bonnaire . . . .
But these disparate personality snippets add up to a big nothing. Make that a little nothing. And not even such dramatically charged moments as a personal betrayal, a quasi-"Frankenstein" rooftop finale, and a climactic revelatory letter to the police inspector can make it better.