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Vivid, Enticing Movies From France With Love

First-rate filmmaking allied with a thoughtful approach

French film has always been popular with American audiences, and its influence is taking many forms at the moment.

One of this season's surprise hits, "The Birdcage," is a remake of "La Cage aux Folles," a French farce that captivated US moviegoers almost 20 years ago.

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The less appealing "Diabolique," with Hollywood star Sharon Stone and French actress Isabelle Adjani plotting murder at a boarding school, takes its story and title from a classic French thriller of 1955. The new comedy "Little Indian, Big City" is a French production dubbed into English for family viewing. Another comedy, this one with adult themes, "French Twist," is playing on US screens in a subtitled version.

More pictures from France are coming to American theaters this spring, and they're worth seeing by moviegoers who value entertainments that combine first-rate filmmaking with a thoughtfulness today's blockbusters often forget to provide.

The most noticeable asset of "Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud" is the presence of two luminous French stars. First is Emmanuelle Beart, known to Americans for popular productions like "Manon of the Spring" and "La Belle Noiseuse." She also appears with Tom Cruise in Brian De Palma's coming "Mission: Impossible." The second is Michel Serrault, who counts the original "Diabolique" and "La Cage aux Folles" among his many credits.

Beart and Serrault play an odd but dignified couple in "Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud," a story of May-December friendship that has the courage to celebrate closeness and companionship without falling into familiar love-affair formulas.

The story begins when Nelly, a young woman caught in an unhappy marriage to a lackadaisical husband, meets a much older man who needs an assistant to help him prepare his memoirs for publication. Their relationship becomes more personal as she learns the details of his past, including unhappy episodes that crushed his idealism and soured his family life. At the same time, Arnaud comes to sympathize with Nelly's problems, and even feels a pang of jealousy when she gets involved with a man they both know.

At times it seems as if their relationship might ripen into romance. But while a more conventional movie would surely take this road, "Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud" dares to be different, acknowledging the ethics and responsibilities of real friendship as well as its rewards and gratifications. The story finishes on an open-ended note, allowing the characters to strike out in new directions with increased maturity.

Directed with unfailing taste and precision by Claude Sautet, a veteran French director whose talents continue to strengthen, "Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud" is an uncommonly enticing drama.

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Another new French arrival on American screens isn't really new at all. "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" was a smash hit with US audiences in 1964, and while it's rarely been seen by Americans since, its reputation has endured - as a beautiful movie in itself, and as a splendid specimen of Jacques Demy's unique approach to film. Demy makes music and color as important as story and characters. It's been reissued by Zeitgeist Films in a gorgeously restored version.

The story centers on characters who are both commonplace and compelling. Genvieve, played by Catherine Deneuve, is a shop assistant who becomes pregnant just as her boyfriend heads off for military service. Guy, played by Nino Castelnuovo, is the well-meaning lover who sincerely intends to return and care for her, but finds his plans thwarted by forces beyond his control.

Also central to the story are Roland, a wealthy businessman who courts Genevieve despite her predicament, and Genevieve's mother, a practical woman whose decisions for her daughter don't always please the young woman.

What saves this simple tale from soap-opera territory is its remarkable use of Michel Legrand's music - as in many Demy films, all the dialogue is sung rather than spoken - and the exquisite cinematography that makes every shot into a picture-perfect treat for the eyes. Also praiseworthy are the performances, especially that of Deneuve, then as now a full-fledged international star.

"The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" may be too eccentric for some tastes, with its operetta format and richly ambivalent emotions, but I found it more compelling in the '90s than when it first captured American hearts more than three decades ago.

r Neither 'Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud' nor 'The Umbrellas of Cherbourg' have been rated. Both contain adult situations, and 'Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud' contains a little vulgar language.

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