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French film master charms 'Time and Again'

Movies and time have a close relationship. Movies take time to watch, they explore characters and events over periods of time, and they manipulate time through photography and editing. No filmmaker has explored the intersections of time and cinema more brilliantly - or entertainingly - than Alain Resnais, a towering French director who has changed the course of movie history during his 50-year career. "Time and Again" is a perfect title for the retrospective of his work now traveling to showplaces in several cities.

Resnais presents a string of contradictions. He's a storytelling wizard who began his career with documentaries; a hugely influential artist who's turned out numerous flops; a highbrow who loves comic books; and a piercing intellectual who's also a charming and articulate conversationalist, as I've discovered in interviews we've done. He's been hailed as an aesthetic pioneer and dismissed as a brainy trickster - and both at once, as when critic Pauline Kael called him "an innovator who hasn't got a use for his innovations."

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Such paradoxes may have dissuaded some moviegoers from giving his pictures a fair try, but adventurous viewers have been flocking to them for half a century. He made his first impact in the 1950s with a series of documentaries: the stylish "Le Chant du Styrne," a tone poem about a plastics factory, and the awesome "Night and Fog," still regarded as one of the most perceptive Holocaust studies ever filmed.

The movie that changed his career - and helped put French film at the center of world culture -was "Hiroshima mon amour," made in 1959 from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras, an acclaimed novelist with a zest for experimentation that matched Resnais's own. The movie tells the bittersweet story of a Frenchwoman whose romance with a Japanese man reawakens jarring memories of a forbidden love affair she had during the Nazi occupation of her country.

Mingling personal and political themes with unprecedented approaches to cinematic time and space, this thrillingly poetic drama transformed Resnais from interesting talent to legendary master - and his status soared still higher with his next feature, "Last Year at Marienbad," written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, an inventor of France's controversial "new novel" style based on meticulous description rather than psychological depth. In it, an emotional duel takes place between a nameless woman and an enigmatic man who may or may not be her former lover. Cheered and booed with equal vigor - and a lot funnier than either camp gave it credit for - it confirmed Resnais as one of the world's most closely watched and hotly debated screen artists.

Serious critics kept applauding subsequent movies like the intricate "Muriel," which again mixes political and romantic themes, and "La Guerre est finie," which uses unconventional flash-forwards to tell its melancholy tale of a revolutionary whose glory days have passed. Then came "Je t'aime je t'aime," a 1968 fantasy about a man who finds that time-traveling is no way to escape the past.

About this time, supportive reviewers became as divided over Resnais as audiences were, and he didn't help matters by refusing to stay in one particular mold. "Stavisky..." is a bio-pic about a crooked financier, "Providence" is a fragmented tale about a novelist's imagination, "Mon Oncle d'Amrique" is a frisky fantasy based on social science theories, "Mlo" is an aggressively old-fashioned melodrama. And so on! Their sheer diversity confused critics who wished Resnais would stick with one style so they could label him.

They didn't get their wish, and Resnais remains as mercurial as ever. His most recent movie, "Same Old Song," was a hit at last year's New York Film Festival despite its uninspired use of old recordings on the soundtrack.

This year, two more Resnais films are reaching American screens, seven years after they were made: "Smoking" and "No Smoking," based on several two-character plays by Alan Ayckbourn and filmed in a deliberately artificial style that recalls the early days of silent cinema. Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi play all nine roles in the interchangeable movies, which suggest the different paths a life may take depending on spur-of-the-moment decisions.

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"Smoking" and "No Smoking" are far from Resnais's grandest works, but their many unexpected qualities - at once stagy and cinematic, realistic and surrealistic, comic and tragic -show that the old master still refuses to settle down.

*'Time and Again: The Cinema of Alain Resnais,' with 15 features and two programs of shorts, continues through July 28 at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater in New York and through Aug. 5 at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto; it's due at the Northwest Film Center in Portland, Ore., Aug. 4-26, and the Cleveland Cinematheque, Sept. 20-Oct. 1.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society