Classic re-releases from Europe cheer a dismal summer

A French crime caper and a surreal Spanish story amuse and unsettle us

Hollywood is disappointing this summer, but the recent string of second-rate movies doesn't seriously dent the prestige of the American entertainment industry. Viewers worldwide will continue to demand film and video products from the United States.

And if they don't, Hollywood will simply buy its way back into people's hearts. Note that Warner Bros. is reportedly pitching $10 million into the Japanese publicity campaign for "A.I. (Artificial Intelligence)," which hasn't caught fire in American theaters.

There's a flip side to this story, though. Hollywood has dominated world entertainment in recent decades, but US filmmakers have also been influenced by foreign movies. American directors like Quentin Tarantino and Hal Hartley have learned some of their most effective strategies from French pictures of the 1960s, for instance, and David Lynch pictures like "Blue Velvet" and "The Straight Story" are direct descendants of Europe's surrealist movement.

In fact, many European classics are still so vital and entertaining that they pop up in American theaters to this very day and are usually later released on video.

The latest to arrive is Bob le Flambeur, restored to excellent condition by Rialto Pictures, which brought us "Rififi" last year. Directed in 1955 by French master Jean-Pierre Melville, it's a favorite of some American filmmakers - and Melville was influenced just as much by US culture in return. Not only did he call his hero Bob, but he changed his own name from Grumbach to Melville after reading a book by the American novelist.

Set in Montmartre's nightclub district, this sardonic comedy-drama follows the adventures of a high-rolling gambler, who decides to trade the uncertainties of the gaming table for the certainties - or so he hopes - of a perfect crime. Instead of trying his luck at the casino, he'll recruit some crooks and rob the casino. The scheme might work if his accomplices can keep their mouths shut, and if Bob can stay focused on a plan that requires more systematic thinking than he's used to.

"Bob le Flambeur" isn't one of the greatest French crime epics, like Melville's own "Le Doulos" and "Le Samourai," both made in the '60s. But its dark-toned cinematography by Henri Decae still packs a wallop, and the screenplay has a refreshing sense of humor. Also coming from Rialto next year will be Melville's biggest hit, "The Red Circle," in its first uncut American release.

Rialto's other gift to US moviegoers this summer is That Obscure Object of Desire, made in 1977 by the late Spanish director Luis Bunuel, a dedicated surrealist who brought dreamlike qualities to all his films.

Fernando Rey plays a wealthy businessman who walks up to a young woman on a train and drenches her with a bucket of water. Then he tells his fellow passengers about the suffering he's endured at the hands of this difficult person, who worked as his maid but refused his romantic attentions despite his money and power.

Most directors would shape material like this into an old-fashioned romantic comedy-drama, but Bunuel takes a more original route. He avoids making either main character a hero or villain, giving each one a slippery balance of good and bad qualities. He also gives the story a background of revolutionary upheaval, lending the movie an unsettling suggestion of barely suppressed violence.

And he gives it the surrealistic touches that are his trademark - partly through visual details, like the incongruous sack that Rey carries over his shoulder throughout the film. More radically, Bunuel has two different actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, play the maid at different points in the movie - not to reveal different sides of her personality, but to discombobulate the notion that personalities can be comprehended in the first place.

Life is not a puzzle to be solved, in Bunuel's view, but a riddle to be savored for its own mysterious sake. Here he tells a deliciously enigmatic tale with the ease and wit of a master stylist who knows how to entertain us, unsettle us, and astonish us at the same time.

Neither film is rated. 'Bob le Flambeur' contains mild violence and gambling. 'That Obscure Object of Desire' contains violence, sexuality, and nudity.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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