French extremes of the fascinating and boring; Clair de feme A Simple Story

In France there is a long tradition of films that are often described as "personality studies." Character is more importan than plot; gestures mean more than incidents. Such movies are more leisurely than most, and demand a good deal of patience. At their best, they are fascinating. At their worst, they are boring.

Both extremes are currently represented on american screens in these two films. The better of the two is "Clair de femme," directed by Costa-Gavras, who is best known for such politically oriented dramas a "z" and "State of Siege." This time he has left politics out of the picture, at least on the most obvious levels. "Cair de femme" is a muted and moving study of human relationships, punctuated with bursts of dark, absurdist humor.

The main character, played by Yves Montand, is a man in a quandary. As the opening credits cross the screen, we see him in an airport waiting room, nervous and unsure what to do. He leaves the airport and gets in a taxi. By chance, he strikes up an acquaintance with a woman about his age, played by Romy Schneider. Gradually, his story comes out: He has left his wife, promising not darken her life any more.

Like children, who don't yet understand their own emotions, his man and his new friend toy with the idea of a "relationship." Eventually the woman's story comes out, too: She is married to a mentally disturbed man whose psyche has been shattered by his involvement in an automobile accident that killed their daughter.

The plot of the movie iw quirky and unpredictable. But the film is less concerned with telling a story than with painting a vanvas that almost swarms with unfulfilled people seeking security and affection. Costa-Gavras's vision is ambiguous -- glimpses of hope alternate with expressions of despair. "Clair de femme" does not offer easy situations or neat answers. Yet its bluntly skeptical picture of contemporary urban life is etched with a dark wit and a sharp intelligence that is worthy of the finest tradition of contemporary French filmmaking, ranging from Godard (in the satiric dinner-party scene) to Truffaut (in the poignant episode where the insane man wrestles with language problems). Though "Clair de femme" is not a work of the very first rank, it is a memorable and provocative achievement.

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