French thrillers with some philosophical twists
Judging from the movies, France is swarming with cops and robbers these days. The latest French exports are thrillers, and some have a philosophical twist.
The most classical of the bunch is Garde a Vue, named after a French term for preventive detention. It's virtually a one-set drama, in the manner of Hitchcock's ''Rear Window'' and ''Dial M for Murder.'' Most of the action takes place in a single room, a policeman's office on New Year's Eve. Faced with a grisly crime - the assault and murder of some young girls - this hardworking cop spends a long night questioning the prime suspect. He also talks with the suspect's wife, confers with his superiors, and spars with his comical sidekick. Along the way, surprises crop up, casting doubt on the policeman's ideas about whodunit and why.
The film takes a questioning attitude toward appearances of guilt and innocence, suggesting that one can easily be mistaken for the other. Again, this recalls the work of Alfred Hitchcock, whose greatest films - such as ''Strangers on a Train'' and ''Vertigo'' - are based on that very point. French critics and filmmakers have long revered Hitchcock's genius, and it's good to see his ideas living on in the relatively fresh career of Claude Miller, who is also known for his intense summer-camp drama ''The Best Way.'' With its carefully controlled visual style, the crafty ''Garde a Vue'' is a solid new entry in a venerable genre. The cast includes Lino Ventura, Michel Serrault, and Romy Schneider.
Diva is more visceral, and more self-consciously stylish. Directed by newcomer Jean-Jacques Beineix, it chases through Paris at a frantic pace, dragging in more plot twists and bizarre characterizations with every scene.
The story centers on a young opera fan who sneakily tapes a few arias by his favorite prima donna, a purist who never makes recordings. But his tape gets confused with another cassette holding evidence desperately sought by the police. To top it off, some crazed capitalists from the record business will stop at nothing to get their hands on the real opera recording. The result of this confusion is an interminable chase via cars, motorcycles, elevators, and feet, carrying us from the depths of the Metro to the heights of an artist's loft.
There's not much to it, but the excitement is considerable, and Beineix has filmed it with comparative restraint, except for a little nudity and some bursts of violence near the end. The cast, led by Frederic Andrei, is skilled and colorful. It's a rousing movie within its limitations.
The Arrest purports to be a political thriller, but really it's a paranoid outburst. In a clear echo of Kafka's masterpiece, ''The Trial,'' two policemen invade a young woman's home and seize her boyfriend. They question him about a conspiracy he's never heard of and beat him up. When he has a chance to escape, he decides not to - presumably because it's futile to evade the establishment, and because there's a subliminal complicity between the accusers and the accused.
Kafka demonstrated the depth and resonance of this theme. And in his movie version of ''The Trial,'' the gifted Orson Welles proved how hard it was to transfer to the screen. In any case, ''The Arrest'' diverges from ''The Trial'' in all the wrong matters. Unlike the hero of Kafka's novel - who was really guilty, in my view - the detainee of ''The Arrest'' has no profound relationship with the system that accuses him, and that system is not very imposing. What's worse, there's no sense of real social awareness behind the incidents of the plot; it's just one outrage after another, motivated by nothing except the filmmakers' apparent disdain for contemporary ideas of justice. The result is a shrill and forgettable movie on a potentially important subject.
Meanwhile, speaking of thrillers, fans of French ''film noir'' can now look forward to getting their first look at a major but neglected picture, Bob le Flambeur. Directed by the talented Jean-Pierre Melville in 1955, it had its American premiere just last fall at the New York Film Festival, and is set for its commercial debut on June 2. Set in a rather shabby-looking Montmartre, it follows an aging villain as he moves through the criminal underworld and tries to engineer just one more big job. Though elegantly filmed, ''Bob le Flambeur'' can't compare with a true Melville masterpiece like ''Le Doulos.'' Still, it provides a tasty sample of an influential moviemaking style, standing between the dark Hollywood thrillers of the '40s and the epochal French ''new wave'' pictures of Godard and Truffaut. It's well worth a visit.