A Love-Pate Relationship: Sagnier?s Gabrielle is charmed and browbeaten by suitors.

Love at first sight—or, more often in the case of American films, sex at first sight—can be an eye-rolling development if you’re not an über-romantic seeking escape at the cinema. But even realists might forgive the frequent declarations of devotion between characters whose relationships seem shorter than the feature itself in A Girl Cut in Two, which is, astonishingly, the 68th film from French New Waver Claude Chabrol. That charm comes partially from the mesmerizing lovers themselves, in this case a triangle played by Ludivine Sagnier, Benoît Magimel, and François Berléand. But it’s Chabrol who truly captivates: His fluid camera and less-is-more storytelling is thrillingly Hitchcockian, and his lack of judgment regarding the sexuality of his characters is refreshingly French.

Sagnier, best known as the vixen in 2003’s Swimming Pool, plays Gabrielle Deneige (subtitles change her surname to “Snow”), a Lyons weathergirl whose golden loveliness helps put her TV career on a fast track. It also enchants two suitors: Charles (Berléand), a reclusive, renowned, and married author 30 years her senior, and Paul (Magimel), the wealthy, entitled brat born to a late pharmaceutical tycoon who’s more age-appropriate but insufferable and possibly unstable. Gabrielle allows both to court her, often more interested in jumping at either men’s summons than attending to work duties. She still lives with her mother (Gabrielle’s age isn’t specified, but the 29-year-old Sagnier looks all of 17 at times), but that’s OK—Mum (Marie Bunel) is concerned about her daughter’s naiveté but open-minded, generally discussing her affairs as if they were a Sex and the City subplot.

A Girl Cut in Two is a bit schizophrenic in tone as it turns into a murder thriller in its last chapter, harking back to an opening sequence bathed in red. But in between, it’s all high living, rivalry, and romance as Gabrielle professes her love for Charles, who toys with her, which prompts Gabrielle to toy with Paul, who also announces his love after one date and threatens to not give up until she’s his. At times, Chabrol’s script, co-written by stepdaughter and first-time feature writer Cécile Maistre, is quite thin: Paul frequently talks about how much he detests Charles, for example, even before Gabrielle is a factor, but we never learn why. And marking the passage of time seems as unimportant to the filmmakers as wedding vows are to Charles. It’s stunning to hear a character mention late in the film that a year has passed; Gabrielle’s field-playing seems at that point to have been going on for a few weeks, tops.

In this case, however, style trumps substance. Aside from all the love coos, the dialogue is witty and smart, with Gabrielle at least allowed to show off a quick mind if not always impressive emotional maturity. (When an older coworker tells her, “You tease!” she responds, “You father of three!”) The director and Magimel, a frequent Chabrol collaborator, have fun with Paul, portraying him as a dandy who drives his absurdly expensive sports car squealy and serpentine, usually accompanied by playful music. And it’s hard not to fall in love with Sagnier, too, whose luminosity and treading of the innocent/sexy line plays like a blend of American counterparts Blake Lively and Scarlett Johansson.

Most intoxicating, though, is Chabrol’s direction, which is often achingly graceful. Particularly gorgeous are his scene shifts: As lascivious and even perverse as these characters are, it’s all talk and only a hint of action, with Chabrol’s camera gliding away just when a less tasteful director might zoom in. Gabrielle’s first request that Charles kiss her floats off to a shot of the nearby Handbook of Behavior for Little Girls; later, when Charles subtly suggests that Gabrielle perform oral sex while he’s writing, the shot is of rapidly typing fingers that suddenly extend before the fade. A Girl Cut in Two feels retro without being prudish, decadent without being tacky. And despite a few flaws in the storytelling, it’s more transporting than any Hollywood romance that may share the marquee at the multiplex.