A surprisingly effective little film, "Monsieur Hire" is most compelling in its silence. In fact, much of this movie is about thoughts unspoken and feelings only vaguely expressed.

As such, one might think it would be difficult to convey the characters' innermost feelings in a film, that most literal of artistic media.But not for director/co-writer Patrice Leconte, who understands subtlety and understatement and uses both to full effect, painting a canvas full of sublimated emotions that any audience can identify with.

The film opens with the discovery of a murder victim and the local investigating policeman interrogating his prime suspect, the title character. Throughout the film the detective harasses his suspect, but can't seem to get him to either confess or deny.

As we get to know Monsieur Hire we understand why. He is a withdrawn little man (superbly played by Michel Blanc), the subject of scorn and derision in his neighborhood. He lives alone and quietly in his apartment, is compulsive in his routine and each morning can be seen wearing a dark three-piece suit as he goes to his tiny office. In fact, he wears a three-piece suit for every occasion - whether staying at home or bowling.

Across the way is the apartment of the beautiful Alice, played exquisitely by Sondrine Bonnaire. She doesn't realize anyone is living in Hire's place - he never turns on the lights. So she doesn't close her curtains, and Hire's favorite pastime is playing a Bach concerto as he watches her in her nightly routine, preparing meals, reading in bed, dressing and undressing, etc.

Then one night she sees him watching her but decides that instead of changing her behavior she will watch him watching her. It isn't long before she arranges to meet him, beginning a strange relationship.

Hire falls deeper in love while Alice alternately encourages and rebuffs him. Eventually, we begin to see that she may be involved in the murder for which Hire is being blamed.

As the film wends toward its conclusion we begin to see that only tragedy can resolve this relationship, though Alice's motives - until the end - remain clouded.

The result is a lyrical, heart-wrenching romantic thriller, whose thrills build slowly and internally rather than through bursts of violence.

Though rated PG-13, "Monsieur Hire" should probably have an R for its frank sexual talk and a scene in a brothel, though there are no sex scenes. There is also some profanity, vulgarity and violence.