Best Truffaut movie in years leads French invasion
France is planning a banner year on American movie screens. As toted up by Variety, the entertainment newspaper, at least 20 French movies are slated for release in the United States during 1984 - and many come from directors with good track records.
Among all these offerings, though, I'll be surprised if any tops the smashing new picture by Francois Truffaut called ''Vivement Dimanche,'' rechristened Confidentially Yours for its American run. A charmer all the way, it blends elements of whodunit, romance, comedy, and melodrama into an unpredictable package that's easily the best Truffaut movie in years.
The heroine, played by Fanny Ardant, is a strong-minded secretary who won't sit still when her boss gets too bossy - even if he is played by the smooth Jean-Louis Trintignant, in his first Truffaut outing. When he snaps once too often, she snaps back, and he fires her. And there's the first puzzle of the picture: Where's the plot if the main characters won't have anything to do with each other?
Well, before she has time to clean out her desk, the boss gets accused of murdering a local businessman. Hoping to clear himself, he asks for a little help - and she snatches the investigation right out of his hands, daringly determined to prove his innocence. Why? It seems she likes him more than she lets on, and he just might be leaning the same way. . . .
That's a quick outline of the situation. It could have grown into a standard mystery-romance, but Truffaut gives every scene a special twist. Yes, the heroine wears a raincoat like countless sleuths before her, but the rest of her costume is as quirky as the subplot that accounts for it. While not every sequence has a built-in surprise, and the villain is easy to figure out, the plot is peppered with twists (from comic to hair-raising) that spice even the obligatory moments.
The story also has an off-kilter logic that marks ''Confidentially Yours'' as very much a Truffaut movie. Just when things seem darkest . . . a secret panel is discovered, evidence arrives from nowhere, needed information comes drifting through the transom from an overheard conversation. That isn't like real life, you say? Correct. It's something far more magical and whimsical. It's a movie, and proud to be one! Truffaut delights in using every trick up his sleeve to make the mystery more fun and the romance more romantic.
If all this has a slightly familiar ring, by the way, it's because one of Truffaut's first films - the popular ''Shoot the Piano Player'' - similarly took its cue from the long tradition of Hollywood gangster epics, farces, and love stories. The new ''Confidentially Yours'' doesn't explode the old genres as that movie did; it's more gentle, more mellow, more loving. But it shows this enormously gifted director back in touch with the wry irreverence that gave his early films part of their utterly unique flavor. Shot in atmospheric black and white by the great Nestor Almendros, it's a beauty in every sense.
I have less good news about another French import due this month. Life Is a Bed of Roses - also known as ''La Vie est un roman'' - comes from the terrifically talented Alain Resnais, here at his most capricious and least effective.
Not surprisingly for a Resnais picture, the story leaps between different times and settings. One involves a group of teachers at a conference on ''education of the imagination.'' Another takes place in a psychedelic ''palace of happiness'' where people go on mental time-journeys and reexperience their own births. The third is a legendary adventure dreamed up by a group of children.
It's colorful, and there's always something to watch when such stars as Vittorio Gassman and Geraldine Chaplin (plus the gifted Ardant again) are on board. But the director fails to integrate his fantasies, messages, and spectacles into a coherent package. The result is fetching one moment, ungainly the next - and one rarely feels that Resnais (or anybody else) is in full control of the movie's complicated mechanisms.
I'm glad Resnais is still as audacious as ever: If he didn't fail in a ''Je t'aime, je t'aime'' or half succeed in a ''Providence'' from time to time, he wouldn't be taking the glorious risks that have resulted in triumphs like ''Last Year at Marienbad'' and striking experiments like ''Mon Oncle d'Amerique.'' But he has stumbled in his latest try at a bold step forward.
Among other French movies headed for the US are two involving the ever-popular Carmen - a film of Bizet's opera by Francesco Rosi and ''Prenom: Carmen,'' by Jean-Luc Godard. Also with a classical touch will be ''Swann in Love,'' a Volker Schlondorff drama based on Proust. Other well-known directors to be represented include Maurice Pialat, Claude Lelouch, Francis Veber, and Bertrand Blier. Stars of their films and others range from Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu to the late Patrick Dewaere and Romy Schneider. Farocki film
Between Two Wars, by West German director Harun Farocki, proclaims itself as ''a film about class warfare which doesn't deal with the pain of the injured or the agonies of death'' and ''a film about the organization of production and labor which doesn't deal with the agonies of the working day.'' In other words, an ideological film that operates by indirection, stressing the intellectual over the emotional. Yet the images accompanying those self-descriptions are strong enough: a man aiming a gun point-blank at another's head, a typist's fingers stabbing endlessly at a keyboard.
In fact, the feelings of this political opus are as clear as its anticapitalist and antifascist messages, which are carried by a series of schematic, often symbolic scenes with little narrative connection. As a visual experience, it hovers somewhere between elegant and rather too austere. As a political tract it has provocative angles, but is less clear and persuasive than it would like to be. I previewed the film recently at the Collective for Living Cinema in New York, where Farocki (who made it between 1971 and 1977) will introduce a rare American screening tomorrow night.