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Building bonds of friendship and a filmmaker's career

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Until now, critics have regarded Diane Kurys as a promising newcomer to the French filmmaking scene. With her new picture, Entre Nous, it's time that label was discarded. A strikingly mature work, it establishes the young director as a cineaste of uncommon skill and sensitivity.

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The story begins during the 1940s, as France copes with the German occupation. One of the main characters (played by Isabelle Huppert) makes her way from a prison camp by marrying a good-hearted attendant. The other heroine (played by Miou Miou) toughs it out in Paris, only to have her husband murdered in her arms.

We shift to the 1950s, when most of the movie takes place. The war is over, and both women have survived - the one still married to her husband-by-accident, the other with a new spouse and a new kind of life.

They meet, become friends, get to know each other's families. As time passes, they rely on each other for support when faced with personal and marital problems. Slowly they forge a strong, affectionate relationship that's deeper and more stable, in some ways, than their home lives.

This friendship is the main current of the film, but not its only concern. Other characters play key roles in the story. And the director refuses to simplify or sentimentalize the role of friendship - even a sturdy, devoted one like this - in the lives of whole, complex people.

Thus, while mutual support helps the two women through times of calm and crisis alike, no emotional ill is magically cured by a neat dose of advice or admonition. In the end, the story isn't even resolved, at least not in the tidy Hollywood sense. Profound problems still exist, and everyone knows it, including the filmmaker. What's been established is that the women, and their relationship , can endure just about anything life throws at them. This isn't a cheery message, exactly, but it's a reassuring one. And coming at the conclusion of such a deeply felt drama, it has a stunning impact.

Although most scenes focus on the two protagonists, director Kurys doesn't neglect the secondary figures. She etches the husbands and children with swift, resonant strokes until they seem fully alive despite their limited time on the screen.

Moreover, through artful handling of background details and settings, Kurys evokes and comments on the '50s period itself, pulling its attitudes and assumptions into the heart of the film's development. A hair-raising scene of a husband's rage, for instance, can be seen as an outburst of sexual fear and hostility that suits not only the character's personality but the time and place in which he lives. Another fine example is the very last scene, which isn't so much directed as choreographed - with each shot, gesture, and camera angle contributing to a rich tapestry of meaning.

''Entre Nous'' has weaknesses. The plot is episodic; some points of the story are vague; not all the imagery is as strong as it might be. And some viewers may feel the sexual episodes push the PG label rather far, though the film's seriousness and sincerity are never in doubt. Kurys still has some growing to do as a filmmaker. But her career has taken a giant leap with ''Entre Nous,'' and the future looks bright for her and her admirers.

New trend in video

Instead of screening their works in the usual fashion, some film and video artists prefer ''installations'' - gallery-type exhibits in which a sequence of images can be studied at length.

This is convenient for the viewer, who can come and go at will. More important, though, is the way this format changes the time dimension of motion pictures. How long the images will be viewed depends on the spectator, not on the preexisting length of the movie or cassette. Thus the viewing experience is less manipulative, one might even say less autocratic, than normal.

The installation setting is ideal for Dara Birnbaum's 1982 work PM Magazine, seen recently at the Whitney Museum of American Art here. Its purpose, to paraphrase a statement by the artist, is to manipulate television before it manipulates us.

To this end, the work wrenches TV pictures out of their usual contexts, offering not an alternative TV show but a carefully framed meditation on contemporary images, gestures, and stereotypes. Arranged in repeating cycles - unlike standard TV scenes that race from one jolt to the next - they take on new meanings and implications as they hover before the eye. ''Twentieth-century speed is suspended for the viewer's examination and interpretation,'' in Birnbaum's words.

The exhibition space is dominated by three large panels, each carrying a grainy photograph and one or more TV screens. The moving and still pictures echo each other, and are echoed in turn by a rock-music recording. Borrowed from a network entertainment show and an electronics commercial, the images (a child with an ice cream cone, an office worker at a computer, and others) seem ironic, absurd, and oddly seductive all at once. Their meanings - overt and hidden, intentional and not - become increasingly apparent through repetition.

''PM Magazine'' is stimulating not only for its own sake, but as an illustration of an important trend in video aesthetics. Early in its development , video art was adopted largely by painters and sculptors seeking a new medium, and by filmmakers who liked its flexibility and economy. Few of these artists gave a passing thought to video as television, or to the crude but ubiquitous popular culture that most people associate with TV.

That's been changing for a few years, and Birnbaum is in the forefront of the new effort to confront simultaneously the nature of popular TV and the possibilities of art video. The dynamics of both are pillars of her ambitious ''PM Magazine.''