Scola fails to score with 'Le Bal'; Sharits shows the fragility of film

Le Bal can't help being a prestigious picture, since it carries the signature of Ettore Scola. He's the maker of such respected (though overrated) films as ''A Special Day'' and ''La Nuit de Varennes.''

And you couldn't ask for a more international movie. While it was shot in Rome by an Italian director, most of the actors are French and part of its financing was Algerian.

The film started its career with a bang, winning three Cesars - the French version of Oscars - and a top prize at the Berlin filmfest. Then it arrived on American screens complete with heavy advertising, glowing quotes from a few critics, and an Academy Award nomination as best foreign-language movie.

But it didn't win the Oscar, and I don't think it will go on winning audiences much longer. Despite all the fuss, ''Le Bal'' is a misfire, an ingenious idea that goes badly wrong.

Set in a cheesy French ballroom, the action is handled completely in visual terms, without one spoken word. First comes a brief introduction to the types of characters we'll be watching, mostly loners and misfits. Then the first scene begins, set in 1936 when popular-front controversy rattled France.

We don't stay in the '30s, though. Soon we whisk to other key periods in French affairs, touching on the war in 1940, the Nazi occupation in 1942, liberation in 1944, American influences in 1945, troubles over the Algerian war in 1956, and the student protests of 1968. In each case, the moods and behavior on the dance floor echo - in their drab, petty way - the portentous changes raging outside the door. Watching and listening, we become secondhand witnesses to history.

It's a tantalizing concept for a show. Rendering it in movie terms, though, Scola got carried away by the stylized nature of the material. Condensing 46 years of human events into 112 wordless minutes, he has relied not on subtle and carefully nuanced performances but overstated caricature and pantomime. Magnified by the camera and the wide screen, the exaggerated comedy and pathos grow as wearing as the insistent bounciness of the music.

It's too bad the film doesn't succeed, because Scola is an intelligent director, and this effort has interesting parallels with his earlier work. Just as ''Le Bal'' compresses decades of European experience into one room and less than two hours of screen time, the plot of ''A Special Day'' squeezed a complicated emotional relationship into one setting and one day, also with historical currents flowing in the background. Moreover, when I mentioned this to Scola during a recent conversation in New York, he added that ''La Nuit de Varennes,'' while something of an epic, focused largely on the inhabitants of a lone stagecoach.

Scola is not only aware of his tendency to constrict things, he's pleased with it. ''I am a claustrophile,'' he told me with a grin. His theory is that emotions are heightened and relationships are deepened when people are confined to a limited area. He sees such situations as ideal arenas for the cinematic exploration of character.

This view places him, stylistically, in the camp of such control-minded directors as Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. I suggested that to Scola and he agreed, but quickly added that his themes are closer to those of a Jean Renoir - a comment that reveals a basically compassionate attitude, since Renoir was the classic humanist of world cinema.

If he wants to stand as high as those giants in the movie pantheon, Scola will have to concoct films a lot stronger than ''Le Bal.'' But he may succeed one of these days, given his imagination and his receptivity to bold projects.

Installations by Sharits

Like some other filmmakers, Paul Sharits has grown fond of ''installations'' - continuously projected works that can be displayed in museums or galleries. His latest effort, ''3rd Degree,'' is a spectacular example of this format. It's on view through May 13 at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Three endless film loops are projected side by side on a large wall. One of them contains a brief minidrama, seen over and over. A woman is being interrogated by someone. A hand holds a lighted match before her face. She says, ''Look, I won't talk.'' Then the film itself starts to burn, seeming to melt and blister before our eyes, until the loop moves on and the sequence begins once more.

To the left of these images, we see a somewhat larger film showing the same events - only more hazy and grainy, since this is a rephotographed version of the first movie. And to its left, completing the pattern, is a still larger ''third degree'' (that is, a film of a film of the original footage) in which all representative images have been blurred and streaked clear out of existence.

In a statement about the work, Sharits says it's about ''the fragility of the film medium and human vulnerability,'' optimistically noting that the on-screen character and the filmstrip itself both ''struggle on'' even though they're ''under fire.''

Beyond this, though, Sharits wants us to share his fascination with film as a tangible substance. He does all he can to pull our attention toward the strips humming through the projector - displaying the images sideways, making sprocket holes visible, and varying the speed from a standstill to a speeding blur. Not to mention his physical assault on the celluloid itself, and his intense interest in the resulting patterns of melting and burning.

Some may find these tactics ornery, but they make an unusual feast for the eyes. And there's even some humor here, as the mostly silent sound track erupts occasionally into a sly reminder that film is primarily a visual art: ''Look! I won't talk!''

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