`The Grand Highway'. French filmmakers enjoy childhood reminiscence

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I'm often reminded of my theory that there's a law in France requiring every director to make at least one bittersweet film about his or her bittersweet childhood. I'm not complaining, mind you. Some wonderful and memorable films have come to us courtesy of this longtime trend - pictures like ``The 400 Blows,'' by Fran,cois Truffaut, and ``Forbidden Games,'' by Rene Clement, and the new ``Au Revoir, les enfants,'' by Louis Malle. It's still remarkable, though, how childhood experiences never stop fascinating French filmmakers and their many American fans.

The latest example of the breed is ``The Grand Highway,'' written and directed by Jean-Loup Hubert. It's a largely autobiographical story, and it stars the filmmaker's own son, nine-year-old Antoine Hubert.

He plays Louis, a city boy from Paris, whose mother is pregnant and too hard-pressed to care for him. She sends him for a vacation he doesn't want, far out in the French countryside - where he finds himself living among rural peasants, a kind of people he's never known before. His guardian during this adventure, a childhood friend of his mother, is a caring person who wants to make his visit pleasant. But her husband, Pelo, is another story: Although he's decent in his heart, sorrows and anxieties nibble away at him, and when he's drinking too much he can be unpredictable and even vicious.

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Louis has things on his mind apart from these characters, including his relationship with a new friend close to his own age, who wants to teach him a few elementary facts about the birds and bees. But as the story develops, Louis and Pelo get to understand and even learn from each other - leaving both the boy and the adult a little wiser and more mature at the end of the summer they share.

``The Grand Highway'' isn't a film for everyone. It goes out of its way to include earthy details of peasant life, and it has a sex scene that's brief but surprisingly graphic. The story isn't very original, even by the standards of French childhood movies, and it's not exactly pleasant to watch Pelo get drunk and fly off the handle.

``The Grand Highway'' features some fine performances, though, by its pre-teen star and by such talented grown-ups as Anemone, who plays the guardian, and the new French superstar Richard Bohringer as Pelo. Paying a visit to New York recently, Mr. Bohringer told me that he based his portrayal of Pelo on his own childhood memories of similar characters. He also said he regards his primary job as an actor to be ``remembering everything - how things look, how things sound, even how they taste.'' His memories have served him well in ``The Grand Highway,'' which reminds us once again that France's filmmakers have a special sensitivity when it comes to youth.

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