HOLLYWOOD films consistently outsell movies from other countries in American theaters. Yet every year a number of international movies try for success in the United States, hoping to join the list of exceptional pictures that become art-theater hits. Two of the latest are "Close to Eden," by Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, and "Van Gogh," a portrait of the immortal Dutch painter made by French director Maurice Pialat.
"Close to Eden" takes place in Mongolia, where a young couple named Gombo and Pagma live a peaceful existence guided by old traditions, despite signs that modern civilization - under the authority of Chinese law - is moving ever closer to their rural home. Their lives take an unexpected twist when a Russian laborer named Sergei, working on a road-construction project in the area, accidentally plunges his truck into a lake. Gombo helps him out, and after getting to know each other, the men travel together
to a nearby city.
Gombo hopes to buy a TV set during the trip - his wife says this will make them more modern - and also to purchase some condoms, in order to obey the limit on family size imposed by official policy. Again, however, unexpected events come to pass: Sergei drinks too much and gets arrested, while Gombo falls asleep on the way home and dreams that Genghis Khan is angry with his 20th-century aspirations.
When he finally gets back to Pagma, they decide their old-fashioned life is more satisfying than the rather dull stuff they see on their new television set. They also arrive at a decision about whether to abide by the official birth-control rules.
The end of the movie is nostalgic and romantic, employing the old-fashioned tool that Gombo uses to control his horses (the film was originally called "Urga," named after this device) as a symbol for the old-fashioned ways that may soon disappear.
"Close to Eden" is not a very dramatic film. The story wanders quite a bit - it was shot over a nine-week period from an unusually open-ended screenplay - and there's more than one dull spot, despite the spontaneity that arises from improvisation by Mr. Mikhalkov and his performers. The movie is beautifully photographed, though, with scenes that make you feel the breezes of the Mongolian steppe whispering through your hair. At such moments the picture seems as "Close to Eden" as its title.
VINCENT VAN GOGH has been a popular film subject for decades, in movies as different as Vincente Minnelli's classic "Lust for Life" and Robert Altman's offbeat "Vincent & Theo," which premiered two years ago. The new "Van Gogh," with French musician and actor Jacques Dutronc in the title role, concentrates on the weeks just before the painter's death in 1890, when his artistic talent and mental anguish both reached the pinnacle of their intensity.
The film's most appealing ingredient is its great affection for beauty, expressed through eloquently photographed sequences in the French countryside where Van Gogh did his last work. Its most unusual aspect is its restrained portrayal of the artist himself, whose madness is not flaunted in the usual ways dreamed up by movie actors, but left for the audience to infer.
Mr. Pialat ranks with France's most versatile filmmakers, and while "Van Gogh" is less daring than "La Gueule Oueverte" and less risky than "Under Satan's Sun," to name earlier works, it is still among his most ambitious achievements. Chances are it will gather an enthusiastic following among moviegoers with a serious interest in painting, or cinema, or both.
* "Close to Eden" has no rating, but it contains implied sexual activity, discussion of condoms, and some vulgarity. "Van Gogh" is rated * and includes nudity and sexuality.