Grade: B+

The same culture clash that served as the backdrop to the halting romance between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in “Lost in Translation” takes center stage–though romance is nowhere in sight–in “Fear and Trembling,” a cool, incisive, funny but also strangely melancholy film adapted by writer-director Alain Corneau from a novel by Amelie Nothomb. Fashioned with impeccable style and blessed with a flawlessly restrained performance by Sylvie Testud in the lead role, the tale of a young Belgian who suffers through a horrendous year as a low-level employee in a Tokyo-based megacorporation is probably too specialized to appeal to many viewers, but it will touch a nerve with anyone with a taste for trenchant storytelling and refined filmmaking.

Again like Sophia Coppola’s much-praised picture, “Fear and Trembling” has a very narrow focus, which it hones in on with uncanny precision. Amelie (Testud) is a mousy European who was born in Japan and recalls her early years there as a time of enchantment. Fluent in Japanese, she’s enthusiastic about the job she’s managed to secure at the giant Yumimoto Company. But from the first day in the well-oiled-machine of an office she finds herself treated with utter condescension by division head Mr. Saito (Taro Suwa), who answers to a Buddha-like vice-president named Omochi (Bison Katayama). Amelie’s immediate superior is Fubuki Mori (Kaori Tsuji), a tall, incredibly beautiful young woman who’s working her way up the corporate ladder. Amelie sees Mori not only as a model but as a kind of oriental ideal, and assumes that her friendly manner–especially when compared to the dismissive attitudes of Saito and Omochi–indicates a degree of warm support for the newcomer. But in this, as in so much else, Amelie is mistaken, and by the end of her year with the firm she finds herself repeatedly humiliated, yet strangely instructed by the experience of being relegated to successively more demeaning duties–culminating in a stint as washroom attendant. The odd thing is that she realizes her ineffectiveness in each of the roles she’s assigned, and sticks it out for the full year–despite the miseries heaped on her–to prove that she can at least achieve the attitude of complete submission to hierarchical authority characteristic of the Japanese worker.

On the surface “Fear and Trembling”seems pretty slight, not much more than an elongated sketch; but it’s actually about a good deal more than simply earning chuckles from a clash between Japanese and western mindsets. The picture gets at the essential impenetrability of cultures to outsiders while painting a fascinating psychological portrait of a woman bewildered by a society she idolizes who ironically must demean herself in western terms in order to prove worthy of even the most grudging acceptance within it. If played ineptly, such a tale would seem cruel and unpalatable. But here it’s staged with an artfulness that keeps it light on its feet–not fluffy, but cooly, almost ascetically weightless. That winningly precise tone is enhanced by Amelie’s reportage of her experiences as the picture proceeds in the words of Nothomb’s book, but even more by Testud’s marvelous performance, which makes the character not just a pitiful waif but curiously determined, almost courageous figure. (The actress’ mastery of the Japanese dialogue is also impressive.) The mood is further assisted by the excellent supporting cast, particularly the extraordinarily lovely Ysuji, by the crystalline cinematography of Yves Angelo, and by the decision to score the film with excerpts from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” which, especially when performed on harpsichord as they are here, mirror the visuals both in fastidiousness and in structure.

Like director Alain Corneau’s previous film “Tous les Matins du Monde” (1991), “Fear and Trembling” is a rarefied piece, sophisticated and somewhat distant emotionally, and so unlikely to appeal to the mass audience. But connoisseurs of cinematic elegance should find it a brilliant jewel.