Arthur Penn once famously likened the experience of an Eric Rohmer film to watching paint dry. As the French say, what an idiot.

For the experience of an Eric Rohmer film is like watching not paint but a painting dry, and it's the painting that captures in some peculiar way the essence of human behavior; in its smallness and precision lurk the larger themes that billions of dollars invested in American films have never managed to get on screen.

Take the French director's latest, "Autumn Tale," which is the fourth of his series "Tales of the Four Seasons." It seems to be about nothing; then, as it lures you in, outfoxes your defenses, confuses your expectations and sucker punches you with blinding speed, you realize what it's about: everything. That is, love, pain, the agony of friendship, the twistiness of attraction, the stupidity of the young, neatly counterbalanced by the stupidity of the old, the whole damn thing. Yet he can compress all this in a single gesture.

For example, there's a moment when a sophisticated but lonely fellow named Gerald (played with unflinching naturalism by Alain Libolt) is about to approach Magali, a woman whom he has been elaborately prepped to encounter. He realizes it's a special instant, and as he approaches her at a wedding buffet, you can see his nervousness. A quiver, a constriction in the larynx as his dry throat tries to conjure up some lubrication, a jittery dance in his eyes, a deep breath, a forced smile in which you can see his lips straining toward pure panic as he lurches out--ugh, sometimes it's so hard!--that first word, which is the great come-on line (never fails) known as "Hello."

Rohmer gets it. Can you think of an American film that has captured the exquisite agony of that moment when, after all the dreaming and toothbrushing and gargling and tie-tying, the dance is about to begin? No. American films are too big, somehow; they never get these dry little human moments right.

The plot of "Autumn Tale" seems so offhand that it takes awhile for you to understand with what skill it's been put together and how carefully it's been thought out. It's really the story of two best friends, the sophisticated Isabelle (Marie Riviere, luminous) and the earthy Magali (Beatrice Romand, earthy), who live in a far, sunny region. Isabelle is happily married, overseeing the upcoming marriage of her daughter. Magali, a widow, owns a vineyard, which will supply the libation for the ceremony; she's depressed because of her loneliness. Her son is an idiot, and the one light in her life is her son's girlfriend, Rosine (Alexia Portal), who has bonded to her in an odd way.

Both Isabelle and Rosine wish to help Magali, and each concocts a plan to end her solitude but--this is so typical of Rohmer, and so sophisticated--each also lacks the discipline to keep the plan untainted with self-interest. So while they're telling themselves they want to improve Magali's life, it's really their own lives they want to improve.

Isabelle takes out an ad in the paper to meet a man, and then goes in Magali's stead. But she really wants the thrill of the flirtation, the palpitations, the sense of a secret life, the illusion of infidelity that she'd never consciously commit. As for Rosine, she fabricates something even more cockamamie: In this operation, she'll get an ex-lover of hers (her philosophy professor, an older man) to bond with Magali. In that way, she hopes to make Magali happy, but also preserve her connection to the man, Etienne (Didier Sandre), while removing it from the sexual realm. This proves the adage: There's no fool like a young fool.

So essentially the movie has the hallmarks of both classic farce and classic suspense. In the one sense, it's a domestic thriller of competing conspiracies, and in the other, it's a richly comic multitude of confusions, in which at one time or another nearly everybody in the cast misunderstands what's going on before his or her eyes, and the story spins seemingly even more out of control.

The orchestration of emotion and incident is quite extraordinary, particularly as it unfolds in an atmosphere of such domestic tranquillity. The setting is the Rhone valley, among the petite bourgeoisie, people of good heart but possibly characters ever so gently eroded by delusion.

Nothing in the film feels "directed" in the American sense, and none of the performances feel like "acting," which is a sure indication of sublimity in either category. I was stunned how expertly it drew me in and made me care about these people, their little ticks and twitches of flawed humanity, their dreams so small and normal. Stop and think: How long has it been since you've seen a movie about little people that is neither ironic or condescending? Well, since Eric Rohmer's last film.

The movie even manages to survive a closing scene at the harvest festival where a mustached man with wretched teeth sings what the French laughingly call a "song" and that the rest of the world would wearily regard as mere noise. I hate it when they do that.

Autumn Tale (118 minutes, in French with subtitles at the Cineplex Odeon Cinema) is rated PG for sexual innuendo.

CAPTION: Marie Riviere, left, and Beatrice Romand in Eric Rohmer's deftly told story of friendship.

CAPTION: Marie Riviere, Alain Libolt and Beatrice Romand in "Autumn Tale."