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A (Mostly) Magnificent Seven

Directors Guild will present some venturesome new works from France, plus a 1949 classic.

April 23, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"City of Lights, City of Angels," a week of new French films plus a restored color print of Jacques Tati's 1949 classic "Jour de Fe^te," will screen at the Directors Guild, one of the event's sponsors. Five of the six new films are knockouts, reminders of just how venturesome, varied and rewarding the French cinema can be. "City of Lights, City of Angels" is a real treat for cineastes.

The series opens Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. with its most joyous, most sumptuous offering, Philippe De Broca's exhilarating swashbuckler "En Garde," arguably the best picture ever from the New Wave pioneer who has been absent from American screens for years. Boasting a stellar cast and wonderful period atmosphere, this deft reworking of Paul Feval's 1857 novel "Le Bossu" stars Daniel Auteuil as Legardere, a superb swordsman who vows to avenge the murder of his dashing, gallant friend the Duke de Nevers (Vincent Perez), a victim of his impoverished, greedy cousin Gonzague (Fabrice Luchini).

In the 16 years it takes Legardere to be able to attempt to realize his vow, he raises the duke's baby daughter while a member of a commedia dell'arte troupe. The period (1715-1723) is that of the Regency, in which France was ruled by the shrewd, high-living nephew of Louis XIV, Philippe d'Orleans (Philippe Noiret), who ushered in the era of modern banking with its risky opportunities for clever, daring types like Gonzague. Loaded with action, intrigue and romance, "En Garde" is irresistibly stirring. Perez will appear at the screening.

The title of Bruno Dumont's stunning "Life of Jesus" (Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.), winner at Cannes of the Special Golden Camera award, offers an ironic commentary on the mundane existence of a Normandy teenager, Freddy (David Douche), who hangs out with his equally aimless and ignorant bike-riding pals in their red-brick town, where absolutely nothing seems to happen. This atmosphere of boredom, with its concomitant frustration and resentment, is the perfect breeding ground for a virulent form of racism, here directed at a young Arab, Kader (Kader Chaatouf), who is taller, better-looking and better off than they are.

Not to be intimidated, Kader dares to express his attraction to Marie (Marjorie Cottreel), with whom Freddy is having lots of sex but little romance. That Freddy is an epileptic makes him more yearning and inward than his friends--more likable but ultimately more dangerous. Dumont's austere, measured pace and absolute control, plus his formidable cast, pays off unforgettably. Dumont will be present.

Anne Fontaine's "Dry Cleaning" (April 30 at 7:30 p.m.) has much the same impact as "Life of Jesus." Miou-Miou and Charles Berling play an attractive couple who run a cleaning establishment in the small city of Belfort, not too far from Paris. They and their young son and the husband's mother live in the same building that houses their store on the town's main street. That Berling's Jean-Marie is a perfectionist workaholic is beginning to make his wife bored and restless when a handsome young man, Loic (Stanislas Merhar), unexpectedly becomes part of their lives.

The sole disappointment of the series is Lucas Belvaux's tedious "Just for a Laugh" (May 1 at 7:30), in which a garrulous househusband (Jean-Pierre Leaud) befriends the man (Antoine Chappey) with whom his beautiful, much-younger wife (Ornella Muti) is having an increasingly serious affair. The result is an aura of contrivance over a glum film that's dull despite Leaud's lively, detailed portrayal of yet another creepy type. Belvaux will be on hand to discuss his picture.

Any Jacques Rivette film is a major event, and "Secret Defense" (May 2 at 12:30 p.m.) is another triumph for the ever-rigorous New Wave pioneer. All Rivette films are demanding, and this one is especially so, because it is a fairly conventional mystery raised to a cosmic level by Rivette, who takes nearly three hours to unravel it. Still, who can hold the screen so strongly with the sheer beauty of his spare images and compassionate perception of character like Rivette?

Sandrine Bonnaire, an actress up to the Rivette challenge, plays a 30-year-old Paris medical researcher whose ordered existence is shattered when her younger brother (Gregoire Colin) uncovers evidence that their father was not a suicide but was murdered by his associate (Jerzy Radziwilowicz, star of Wajda's "Man of Marble" and "Man of Iron"), who now runs his armaments factory. Rivette carries his probe beneath appearances to a shattering, ironic conclusion.

The great Jacques Tati (1908-1982) made his 1949 feature debut with "Jour de Fe^te," (May 2 at 4:30 p.m.), which reveals his devotion to Buster Keaton in his physicality and in his constant tangle with man's inventions. He casts himself as the sweet-natured but stunningly inept postman in the village of St. Severe, which is eagerly anticipating a carnival. There's a lot of Renoir in Tati's love of the pastoral and country people, whom he observes with such affection.

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