''Sequins" is an old story told in a very special way. France's Eleonore Faucher, making her feature debut, spins a quiet and beautifully observed tale of female friendship and reawakening to life; at its worst, the film suggests superior chick lit and at its frequent best feels like a Sundance indie suffused with a European sense of death and renewal. Filmed with the colors of a Cezanne and the light of a Vermeer, it's a movie about craftsmanship that itself is a small work of remarkable craft.
Shot in the Rhone region, ''Sequins" follows a small-town teenager named Claire (Lola Naymark) who finds herself pregnant by a local married man. She tells no one -- well, she impulsively tells her supermarket co-workers that her weight gain is from cancer treatments, and then she swaddles herself in layers of coats and hides from the world in her walk-up apartment. Her parents, wealthy farmers, remain oblivious. A sympathetic doctor tells her she can have an ''anonymous birth" -- i.e., give the child up for adoption -- and Claire holds on to the ''anonymous" part like a lifebelt. She keeps the printout of the sonogram in her pocket and is terrified to look at it.
Eventually Claire finds a job with a local seamstress, Mme Melikian (Ariane Ascaride), a chic Armenian mourning the death of her son in a motorcycle accident. The older woman does embroidery -- delicate, diaphanous sheaths of beadwork -- for the couturiers of Paris and Claire, too, has her own examples of needlepoint in which she stitches together rabbit fur, metal rings, bits of glass into eccentric veils. She's afraid to show her work, though, or her belly, or her corona of rich, red hair, or any part of herself. The girl's secret and the woman's grief cancel each other out.
''Sequins" (the original French title is ''Brodeuses," or ''Embroiderers") brings these two together like winter giving way to spring, and while there are few surprises, the director has such control over her art that the story feels newly uncovered. These are people who live close to the earth and who are comfortable with silences -- the dialogue is spare, the pace unhurried, and in this hush Faucher and her cinematographer, Pierre Cottereau, create a world of almost shocking sensuousness. In one scene, the mother of one of Claire's friends clubs and guts a freshly caught eel, and a viewer recoils from the casual brutality; minutes later, the friend's father shows Claire a walnut in its shell, nestled like a baby in the womb, and comments on its perfection. These moments feel so immediate a viewer can almost reach out and touch them.
If this were a Lifetime movie, it might star Alexis Bledel and Gena Rowlands, with a very special appearance by Billy Crudup as Claire's friend's brother, wounded in that motorcycle accident and weighted down with guilt over the death of his friend. It might be a moving and underrated two hours, with commercial interruptions, and that would be fine. ''Sequins" goes looking for deeper mysteries, though, and brushes up against them; it keeps Thomas Laroppe's Guillaume on the sideline for the most part and trains its camera on two women working slowly toward each other over a wooden embroidery frame. Faucher finds concordance between a tear that falls from a woman's eye and a tear in the fabric of life, and she consoles us with the thought that patient attention to detail might mend both.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.