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Critics, Festivals Salute High Side of Cinema

These French films may not land at your local multiplex, but they set standards of moviemaking beyond profitability

Readers sometimes wonder why critics write about movies that aren't playing at the local multiplex. I do this in the article you're reading right now, about an exciting series called ``Cahiers du Cinema Selects Recent French Film,'' which recently opened at Lincoln Center here. What's the point of reporting on films that people can't run out and see?

There are several reasons. One is that moviegoers like to know what's happening in the motion-picture world even if they can't see every new production for themselves - much as people browse through book-review sections, knowing they'll never have time to read all the books covered there.

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Another is that attention from reviewers can help a film get released on the commercial circuit. If enough critics sing the praises of Jacques Rivette's elegant new ``Jeanne la Pucelle,'' for instance, an enterprising distributor may put it in theaters everywhere.

Another related consideration, is a fact that can't be stressed too heavily: Distribution of non-Hollywood movies is less a matter of quality than of profitability.

Every year, hundreds of films are completed in countries around the world. In deciding which ones they'll bring to American theaters, releasing companies look most keenly at the bottom line. The movies chosen for your local multiplex or even your local art theater aren't picked because they're the best pictures available, or even the most entertaining.

Rather, they're selected because they have the best likelihood of turning a profit. And this determination is often made on the basis of factors like star power, fashionability, and marketability, which may have little connection to loftier values like artfulness, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity.

I don't mean to sound cynical about this. There are many distributors who specialize in the higher side of cinema - companies like New Yorker Films and Sony Pictures Classics come to mind - and others who are willing to take an occasional gamble with ``art-house product,'' as it's known in the trade. They recognize that good films can be profitable, and profitable films can be good. Yet even these distributors must keep bottom-line considerations steadily in mind.

If reviewers were to focus all their attention on films already in release, therefore, they would promote ``relevance'' in the narrowest sense, but would succumb to the notion that potentially lucrative movies are the only movies we need to know about. They would also deprive readers of information about films that may be available in time to come, and would deprive distributors - always curious about what pictures are building advance interest - of important help in gauging which new movies have the best chance of success.

Programmers also play an important role in this process, through the choices they make for festivals and special programs. Sometimes they work hand-in-hand with critics to spread the word about films that deserve wide attention.

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Now in its fourth year, Lincoln Center's annual series of new French films is a fine example of such cooperation, since its offerings are chosen by editors and writers of what may be the world's most-renowned film magazine.

Cahiers du Cinema published auteur-conscious articles by such legendary figures as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1950s, pioneered the political analysis of cinema during the '60s, and remains a powerful force today under the guidance of Thierry Jousse, the perceptive and personable cineaste who serves as its editor.

A prominent feature of this year's lineup is its emphasis on female filmmakers. After opening with ``I Can't Sleep,'' a fact-based crime drama by the respected Claire Denis, the program moved on to three woman-directed movies produced for ``All the Boys and Girls in Their Time,'' an extraordinary French television project that has commissioned movies from nine directors with three conditions attached: that they focus on young people, include a party scene to illustrate social behavior, and pepper the soundtrack with music from the period when the story takes place.

This series has already produced such worthwhile movies as ``Cold Water,'' by Olivier Assayas, and ``Wild Reeds,'' by Andre Techine, which have been seen on American screens. Among the most impressive of its new productions is Denis's bittersweet ``U.S. Go Home,'' a delicately filmed comedy-drama about a teenage girl, her slightly macho brother, and a precocious friend, all of whom are overeager for worldly experience. Also noteworthy is Patricia Mazuy's whimsically titled ``Travolta and Me,'' about the ill-starred romance of an insensitive boy and his vulnerable new girlfriend.

Best of the bunch is ``Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels,'' directed by Chantal Akerman, one of the greatest filmmakers in Europe today. Chronicling a few hours in the life of a young woman on the lookout for deeper knowledge of herself and her society, this flawed but engrossing drama is filmed and acted with Akerman's usual insightfulness, although it's less innovative in form and content than her best works of the past.

Other films in the series range from Techins abrasive ``I Don't Kiss,'' about a young male hustler in Paris, to Gerard Mordillat's fascinating ``My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud,'' recounting author Jacques Prevel's friendship with the legendary mad genius who helped revolutionize French film and theater.

A special word of praise must be reserved for Rivette's engrossing ``Jeanne la Pucelle,'' or ``Joan the Maid,'' which retells the Joan of Arc story with the grace, dignity, and timelessness that are trademarks of this unique filmmaker.

Running about 5-1/2 hours, the movie leaves out much of the melodramatic content - most notably, the tortures Joan suffered from her inquisitors - that most filmmakers are eager to capitalize on. In its place Rivette offers a series of leisurely scenes that combine nuanced performances (star Sandrine Bonnaire plays the title role) with subtly choreographed camera work that lends a fresh sense of painterly articulation to this well-worn historical subject.

Here's hoping the Lincoln Center showings help bring Rivette's finely shaped epic to the theatrical circuit before long. * ``Cahiers du Cinema Selects Recent French Film'' continues at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater through March 9. ``I Can't Sleep,'' will be commercially released in June. ``My Life and Times With Antonin Artaud'' is also slated for release later this year.

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