Washington — Some 3,600 movies later, French film critic Claire Clouzot decided to direct her own film. But first she spent 18 years in the dark, reviewing 200 movies a year. Out of it came her first film, ''L'Homme Fragile'' (The Fragile Man), which was shown recently at the Second European Community Film Festival here.
Over a rare hamburger in a Du Pont Circle restaurant, Claire Clouzot talks film. She is vivid as a color still from her own film: a blonde wearing a red blouse, like her heroine in ''L'Homme Fragile.'' In a throaty voice she talks about why she cut away from film criticism. It happened after nearly two decades of writing for the French film magazine Ecran; then for the Socialist daily Le Matin; and more recently for the prestigious Le Monde.
Now she's trying to get away from criticism, writing analysis and interviews rather than reviewing films to support herself between making her own pictures. During her visit to Washington, for instance, she scooted up to a theater near the Washington-Maryland line to catch Meryl Streep's performance in ''Sophie's Choice.'' This was homework for an upcoming interview in Paris with Streep this spring, just before the film opens there. But still there is this in-depth background of nearly two decades as a film critic, background which as the French say is formidable. Doesn't having been a film critic help someone who wants to direct films?
''Yes, it's a way. Let's be frank. (There are) those who decide at the age of 15 to shoot in 8 mm, and then at 18 (generally the boys) to make their first 16 mm film. (But) to start making films at the age of 40 (as she did) is in many ways bad and in many ways good, because there is no technique there other than the desire, the absolute need and desire.''
The very act of criticism was apparently a spur toward directing for her, in an inverse way: ''It is the insufficiency of just being in the position of the film watcher, the one who watches. Just like dumb television, the passive attitude. It dries you out also very much, to just sit and stare and write. That really applied to me. You want to touch and feel things, to fight back. Film never fights back at you. You can just leave the hall, that's as active as you can be. And if you don't pay (for) your ticket . . . as critics you are served on a platter, private projections, private screenings - you see everything which comes out before anybody else - you're finished, you're a passive being.''
Claire Clouzot looked anything but passive as she whirled into her hotel lobby after a Washington day as far from the screening room as she could get. Wrapped in a warm gray coat, her blond halo of frizzy-chic curls blown by the wind, she stopped for a moment to pick up messages at the desk. Miss Clouzot was not recognizable from the publicity photo. Her face is at once prettier and stronger than the photo suggests. It has the well-defined planes of an actress, but her cool gray-blue eyes are those of an intellectual. She is breathless from the whirlwind day of sightseeing, lecturing on film at George Washington University, lunching at the National Gallery, watching Congress in session, and prying information from the National Archives for her next film.
Of course, there is also time spent at the festival itself, where she is one of several European directors appearing with their films, from Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski with his English made film ''Moonlighting,'' to Italian Nino Manfredi with his ''Portrait of a Woman Nude.'' Miss Clouzot says: ''This festival is very positive. It's not a snob event with fur coats, the way it is in Spain, Milan, sometimes Berlin. It is a serious festival.'' Her own ''L'Homme Fragile,'' a hit in Paris, is a remarkable first film. It is witty, touching, and handsomely shot, the screen as drenched in color as a Matisse canvas.
But even more important than her good eye as a director is the good script she's written for herself to direct. It deals with Henri, the fragile man of the title, a proofreader on a French morning newspaper called L'Espoir. Henri (Richard Benny) is a divorce left emotionally wounded and vulnerable by the breakup of his marriage. Unable to cope with another permanent involvement with a woman, he retreats into meaningless relationships and lavishes his love on the six-year-old daughter whose custody he shares. The plot thickens when he meets and begins to fall in love with Cecile, an independent blonde (Francoise Lebrun) who invariably wears red. The film offers an amusing look at the newspaper business, with its high-pressure deadlines and professional jokes. The proofreaders, for instance, relish the typographical error that produces a headline about the government's ''Prime Sinister'' instead of ''Prime Minister.''
Clouzot's dialogue is poignant as well as wry: ''It is as hard to leave as it is to be left,'' says Cecile, adding, ''I can take care of the sadness, but I'd love to share the joy with someone.'' As for Benny, he says, ''Giving love is not my strongest point.''
It is rare in the United States that film critics become directors, but there is a tradition in France, where Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol hammered out as critics in Cahiers du Cinema (a rival monthly to Ecran) the concepts of filmmaking that soon took form in their French New Wave films.
For Claire Clouzot, criticizing the art she loved was not creative enough after nearly two decades. ''I mean, I couldn't stand myself, judging films and putting grades on other peoples' films, anymore. . . . I was a film critic from 1963 on. . . . Also, I was very aggressive, (bitingly) decisive, opinionated, and feminist, with a very harsh view on things. So I was sort of sick of that role, and I had very normally gone into teaching films, because I was offered a post in the university at Orleans in France, where I taught a film class. (It was) a seminar for the last year of graduate students on how to judge film with a better eye. Because I think people don't see films, really.''
Miss Clouzot is also the author of two film books: one on the Nouevelle Vague (New Wave), the other on the first woman filmmaker in history, Alice Guy-Blache. She decided that unless she continued writing books or became a film historian, she couldn't go on as a full-time critic. ''. . . When you only judge other peoples' product, I think you begin to feel uncomfortable.'' She had come to the point where she felt that film criticism was ''a parasitic profession.''
Claire Clouzot had never shot a foot of film (expect for a summer course at Stanford University ) until she tackled ''L'Homme Fragile.'' She made the film between 1980 and '81 for only $250,000, less than a big-budget Hollywood director would spend on a couple of cast lunches. (In Hollywood, $5 million is a low-budget film). ''Everybody got paid the minimum wage. You can't do it here, for economic reasons, because of the salaries, the unions. . . . And now it is no more possible today (even) in France, because inflation is everywhere,'' she says.
Miss Clouzot says of her filmmaking: ''You've got to have a lot of gall and self-satisfaction to make a film when you know nothing about the trade. You've got to be very much in love with yourself. You can't hesitate, which is a terribly vain thing. You've got to be vain, and believe that what you are doing is so needed (she laughs softly at herself), so vitally needed in the world. And this was my attitude. I thought the cinema I kept seeing . . . lacked a vision of men as fragile, as our partner. And with as many problems as we women have, and sort of bending over backwards to be a better mother than we are, when we didn't ask him to be like this. And that is making relationships with us, as adult women, so difficult that we may never get along. And of course (he is) not a hero, not a heel, not a sportsman either, a sort of in-between character, because we constantly meet sort of in-between, middle-of-the-road men, except (in) movies. Heroes are for movies, heroes are for directors Michael Cimino or (Martin) Scorcese, let them have the heroes or the heels. . . . I was interested in the scarred man, but not in the maimed man.''
Claire Clouzot, who is divorced, says that the film reflects her own experience in ''getting entangled time and time again with men who cannot cope with love, with adult love.'' She speaks nearly perfect American English, complete with slang and just a soupcon of a French accent. Her bilingualism comes from 10 years of marriage, and life in California with a husband who taught French and comparative literature at Stanford University.
As the niece of the celebrated French director Henri Clouzot, Claire Clouzot was so in awe of her uncle that she never considered making a film during his lifetime. Six months after his death , she began the script for ''L'Homme Fragile.''
Among her mentors were Agnes Varda, from whom she learned about the importance of precision in details and a stubborness about not stopping short of perfection. From Claude Lelouch (whose films paradoxically, she had laced into as a critic) she says she learned what she wanted to avoid in filmmaking. After the two tangled on a TV panel program, Lelouch offered to read her script for ''L'Homme Fragile'' and liked it enough to offer to produce it. By the time he had decided he really didn't want to produce someone else's film, it had given her, enough entree into the world of filmmaking to go on without him. She did at one point work as an unpaid script girl for him, and decided she couldn't direct films as he did. ''With Lelouch, it's not cinema, it's a marathon. He uses a crane to shoot a doorknob.''
Claire Clouzot is already immersed in preparing for her second film, tentatively titled ''Vietnam Burgundy.'' She says it will be a Franco-American production, and she hopes it will involve a Hollywood star who's already appeared in one hit film about the Vietnam War, as well as a partially French cast. ''Yes, I've been to the black wall,'' she says speaking of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, ''but this film is not about the war. The American has the war in his past, and his friend is a Frenchman (from Burgundy) who helped him during the May (uprising in Paris) in 1968.'' She estimates it will take her five years to write, cast, shoot, and distribute the film.
For Claire Clouzot it's worth it to be a director, the person who ''lets himself hang on the screen, hang there (as if) on a clothesline.''