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Not a New Wave, but a Ripple

French film gets a burst of originality, but not all its directors are fresh faces.

March 01, 1998|John-Thor Dahlburg | John-Thor Dahlburg is The Times' Paris bureau chief

PARIS — Something surprising and wonderful has been happening in the movie theaters of France. Out of nowhere, or so it seems, a bumper crop of fresh-eyed directors, novel ideas and fine films has emerged from the dark and onto the screen.

A new nouvelle vague?

No, this trend is, well, vaguer, with one of the movie-makers--white-maned Alain Resnais, 75, a venerable figure from the original New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s--rubbing elbows these days with directors and scriptwriters half his age and younger, with whom he has little if anything in common. But there is no denying the high-voltage jolt of creativity energizing an industry that seemed stuck in the rut of below-the-belt farces, comedies about cuckolded husbands, dissections of the woes of the Paris bourgeoisie, and other tried and tired formulas.

Jean-Pierre Lavoignat, director of the Paris-based film magazine Studio, believes French cinema has entered a time of "all possible contrasts and surprises." So much is happening, in fact, that it's hard to squeeze all of the creative developments, some contradictory, into a single space. The number of new movies, for one thing, rose from 109 in 1996 to 130 last year.

When the lights dim, film watchers in France now may be transported to an Arab ghetto outside Lyons, a sun-dappled Marseilles neighborhood by the sea, the hospital room of an AIDS patient. In the past year alone, more than a dozen French female directors brought out movies--though most, it should be noted, did not meet with commercial success.

Many of the new productions have been shot for relatively paltry sums, using little-known or unknown casts.

"There always have been small-budget films, for example Eric Rohmer's," observed self-taught director Anne Fontaine, whose $3-million sexual tragicomedy revolving around a dry-cleaning outlet, "Nettoyage a Sec" (Dry Cleaning), is one recent release to have pleased critics and the public. "What's new these days is that such films are successful. It's the public that has changed."

"The audience," Fontaine said, "is just fed up with seeing Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo."

This doesn't mean that colossal "popcorn" productions, both foreign and domestic, don't still exercise enormous box-office pull. James Cameron's "Titanic" has been the country's most popular film since it opened in January. A just-released, special-effects-laced sequel to "Les Visiteurs"--an enormously successful 1993 spoof about a French knight (Jean Reno) and his entourage from the Middle Ages catapulted into the present--appears destined to score big as well.

But some of the old recipes clearly don't work anymore. For instance, director Manuel Poirier's "Western," shot for only $2 million and featuring two unknown actors, has ignited far more industry and audience enthusiasm than well-bankrolled star vehicles showcasing some of France's biggest screen names, including Gerard Depardieu ("XXL"), Sophie Marceau ("Marquise"), and Daniel Auteuil and Carole Bouquet ("Lucie Aubrac").

Jacques Martineau, a university professor of letters with a passion for music, and Olivier Ducastel, a film editor by training, admit they couldn't possibly have gotten their movie, the first for both, financed or made as recently as four or five years ago. It's a girl-loves-boy story . . . only she is a nymphomaniac switchboard operator and he is an ex-junkie with AIDS.

To push the envelope of French filmic genres even more, this picture, "Jeanne et le Garcon Formidable" (Jeanne and the Great Guy), has been made as a musical comedy. At night in a Paris park, when Olivier breaks the news to his lover that he is HIV-positive, it is by singing to the melody of a java, a popular Parisian dance.

The musical style dates from the turn of the century, but "Jeanne's" message is as contemporary as the noisy activism of the militant gay rights group ACT UP. The film, starring Virginie Ledoyen and Mathieu Demy, was chosen as one of 25 official entries at this year's Berlin Film Festival, to the nervous excitement of its creators, both in their mid-30s.

To Michel Rebichon, editor in chief of Studio, the film's frankness and daring form typify the experimentation going on in French movie-making today.

"This new generation hasn't spent a lot of time in the cinematheque," Rebichon said. "They mix genres and show the influence of comic books, music videos and B-movies as much as they do the greats of French cinema."

This melange of innovation and continuity is apparent in the Martineau-Ducastel production as soon as the credits roll, for the male lead is the son of the late Jacques Demy, maker of "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), in which the dialogue was sung, and the American-style musical comedy "Les Demoiselles de Rochefort" (The Young Girls of Rochefort, 1967).

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