When the roads freeze in New Canaan, Conn., during the climactic night in ''The Ice Storm,'' the elegant and deeply disquieting drama that opens the 35th New York Film Festival this evening, everything starts to slide.
The tenuous bonds that hold two suburban families together have finally come undone. Spouses cheat; drink and drugs anesthetize; parents and children share households but have no common ground. ''If you're worried about anything at all, just feel free to ask,'' a father tells his teen-age son awkwardly. ''And we'll, uh, look it up.''
Where? No known reference book addresses the historical unease that Ang Lee's film captures so hauntingly. It is Thanksgiving 1973, and even this film's sheltered suburb is on the brink of profound disruption. Watergate and marijuana smoke are both in the air, signaling the social upheaval ahead. The adult world teems with restlessness, as evidenced by mothers in miniskirts and dinner party talk of ''Deep Throat.'' Children echo the mock sophistication of their parents' behavior while displaying their own signs of pain. ''May Day! May Day! Get this message back to base!'' drones a G.I. Joe toy whose tape recording is so expressively broken.
The malaise is everywhere, and Mr. Lee understands it as only an outsider can. He presents this film's quaint domestic atmosphere in all its underlying eeriness, like a visit to the dark side of the moon. Having spent the era of Rick Moody's novel in Taiwan, where American films helped form his notions of American life, Mr. Lee uses the mainstays of period filmmaking in subtly unexpected ways.
Though music, decor and scarily awful clothing help to set the scene, they are not used merely nostalgically. Instead, the very strangeness of these artifacts captures the period's lunacy. So the metal ice tray emptied nightly when Benjamin Hood (Kevin Kline) fixes one drink too many is wielded as carefully as any Austeniana from Mr. Lee's ''Sense and Sensibility'' or dumpling delicacy from his ''Eat Drink Man Woman.'' Sigourney Weaver, as an ice-blooded WASP vixen, sleeps on a water bed that is part joke, part solace and reads exactly the appropriate book, Philip Roth's ''When She Was Good.'' Cocktail party chat turns to Werner Erhard's EST, while teen-age characters look to comic books, politics and science for echoes of their own alienation.
The filmmaker's subtle assessments of such benchmarks are evident everywhere, even in the way the chilly modern architecture of glass-walled houses keeps the natural world visible yet out of reach.
Beautifully acted as it is, ''The Ice Storm'' still elects to keep its characters and their emotions at a distance. They remain as hidden from the viewer as they are from one another, which is an essential part of the film's disturbing power. Mr. Lee daringly chooses to keep his story's motivational mysteries unexplained, leaving this richly observed film open to the viewer's assessments. Yet the sense of imbalance is ever-present and strong. The ice storm itself, and the death it causes, have a mystical force not often seen in films about wayward weather.
The story is about the Hoods and the Carvers, New Canaan neighbors who live in much closer proximity than any of them fully realizes. Benjamin Hood and Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), whom life has miscast in the role of a suburban mom, are in the midst of a joyless affair. Elena Hood (Joan Allen) clings to wifely propriety while bitterly sensing the truth about her husband.
Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) shows off a reckless sexual precocity while needling her father about his politics, which is easy to do. Asked to say Thanksgiving grace, Wendy manages to mention napalm, materialism and the stolen tribal land of American Indians before Benjamin cuts her off. And Wendy involves herself with both Carver boys, Mike (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), each of them as quirky as their distracted father (Jamey Sheridan). Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire), on a visit home from prep school, uneasily straddles the film's adolescent and grown-up worlds.
The Hoods and Carvers intersect so fully that ''The Ice Storm'' can be momentarily confusing about which children live in which house; that is one measure of the parents' remoteness. But the film's sense of dislocation is often startlingly clear, as in a trenchant sequence that begins with Benjamin and Janey preparing for a tryst at her house. There, instead of having sex in the spare room with the ironing board, Janey suddenly rises and leaves. Benjamin, the film's most clueless character, played by Mr. Kline with the faint jocularity he brings even to serious roles, has no idea why.
Nor does he suspect that his daughter is in the Carver basement, offering Mikey Carver a sexual opportunity in exchange for an odd concession. Obsessed with Watergate and the loss of authority it signifies, Wendy plays with a Richard Nixon mask and insists that Mikey embrace her while she wears it. When Benjamin stumbles across Wendy in this situation, he is even more rattled than he is embarrassed. As father and daughter sheepishly head home together, it's hard to know which of them is more lost.
''The Ice Storm'' moves toward tragedy with a boozy mate-swapping party that carries modish liberation past the point of no return. In a house decorated with antiques but otherwise devoid of tradition, car keys are collected in a bowl and then a game is played. One by one, the women are meant to choose keys and go home to whoever owns them. A son watches his mother pick a lover. ''Good luck,'' one woman says wryly, as her mate leaves with someone else. (In a film that uses music sparingly, the soundtrack now plays ''It's Too Late to Turn Back Now'' and ''Help Me Make It Through the Night.'')
As adapted adroitly by James Schamus, ''The Ice Storm'' shows particular empathy for the women of this well-heeled Pompeii. And it elicits mournfully fine performances from actresses coming to terms with the film's shaky era. Ms. Weaver shows both hard glamour and desperation in a brittle, striking role. Ms. Allen, especially poignant and graceful, conveys the sad dignity of a woman who can't help being well behind her changing times. And the talented Ms. Ricci makes Wendy a touchingly real malcontent and a ticking time bomb. This story's legacy rests with her.
Women are also central to ''Knitwits,'' a witty and sprightly animated short on the same program. Set in a yarn shop, and with voices including that of Joan Rivers, it eavesdrops on an impromptu feminist chat about men and motherhood. ''Those kids have known more 17-year-old girls than Joey Buttafuoco,'' one knitter quips about children left with too many baby sitters. And to the proud yuppie mother with a dark sweater for her baby: ''I know black is slimming, but if you're not careful he's gonna grow up to be an independent filmmaker.''
When the lights go down at Lincoln Center tonight, viewers will first see a music video-style jumble featuring, among other things, the Brooklyn Bridge and a man in a bowler hat. Not to worry. It isn't a film. It's an irritating ad for Grand Marnier, the Film Festival's sponsor this year.
''The Ice Storm,'' which will open commercially tomorrow, is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes profanity, sexual references and discreet sexual situations.
THE ICE STORM
Directed by Ang Lee; written by James Schamus, based on the novel by Rick Moody; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Ted Hope, Mr. Schamus and Mr. Lee; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Shown tonight at 8 at the Alice Tully Hall and at 9 at Avery Fisher Hall, as part of the 35th New York Film Festival. Running time: 112 minutes. This film is rated R. Shown with a 10-minute short, Candy Kugel and Vincent Cafarelli's ''Knitwits'' (1997).
WITH: Kevin Kline (Ben Hood), Sigourney Weaver (Jane Carver), Joan Allen (Elena Hood), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Carver), Christina Ricci (Wendy Hood), Elijah Wood (Mikey Carver), Adam Hann-Byrd (Sandy Carver) and Tobey Maguire (Paul Hood).