Lang's Cool Look at Love The director of The Monkey's Mask casts a hauntingly cerebral eye over sex and death

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It's a sunny winter afternoon in Paris, and Samantha Lang is in love. Demolishing her crème brûlèe and looking out over the city's silver rooftops from the Centre Pompidou, the Australian director speaks of her passion: L'Idol, the film she begins shooting in the city in July. About a suicidal actress who finds spiritual communion with an elderly Chinese man, "it's a beautiful story-really, really beautiful," says Lang. "I am doing it for love."

British-born Lang, 33, has been finding her filmmaking feet in France. The Australian Film Television and Radio School graduate's first feature, The Well (1997), was selected for competition at Cannes. Her second, The Monkey's Mask-a stylishly steely adaptation of Dorothy Porter's verse novel that opens in Australia this week-was partly funded by Studio Canal Plus, with whom Lang was discussing L'Idol. Not only is the director fluent in French-having studied at the Sorbonne as an 18-year-old-but she's unusually attuned to the culture. "French cinema is renowned for its erotica, its free sexuality," she says. So her current embrace "is by no means an accident."

Indeed, the intellectualization of sex is Lang's cinematic specialty. Cerebral rather than salacious, her films are marked by psychological nuance, not prurience. Not that Lang is coy. In the climax of The Monkey's Mask, about a lesbian P.I.'s bumpy ride through the poetry world, the film's antagonist flourishes his erect penis, though it is the graphic depiction of strangulation sex that earned the film its R rating. Yet words, not action, give Mask its dangerous charge. "I never knew poetry was about opening your legs one minute, opening your grave the next," muses P.I. Jill Fitzpatrick.

Lang's work can seem cool and detached at first, but its artful clarity is haunting. Such was the case with her adaptation of Elizabeth Jolley's novel The Well, in which the power shifts between a spinster sheep farmer and her young companion were skillfully-and scarily-heightened. In The Monkey's Mask, the bedroom maneuvers of promiscuous tomboy Jill and the older, married Diana seem less to do with passion than with wrestling out the truth of a mysterious death. L'Idol, which combines the talents of 18-year-old Leelee Sobieski (Eyes Wide Shut) and 74-year-old screenwriter Gèrard Brach (Repulsion), completes Lang's own rite of passage. "These three films will have been my learning period," she says. "Me cutting my teeth while I was learning about my place in the world."

The process continues. While Lang admires Parisians' passion for cinema, dealing with them on a daily basis has been a struggle, she says: "They're so rude." And getting L'Idol through to production in a culture where "conflict is the starting point of all creativity" has been a stretch: "In France you really have to stand up for yourself." One senses that Lang will not only survive the ordeal, but thrive and triumph.