It's good to see Truffaut hitting his stride again

France has a strong presence on American movie screens this year. Of course, it has been many years since the New Wave really surged, but many stalwarts of that movement are still in firm command of their powers. Two of them -- Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard -- presented major new works at the recent New York Film Festival, and Godard's is already in regular release.

Of the two films, the Truffaut is predictably more endearing. But that doesn't mean it's mushy. In fact, The Last Metro is the most thrilling picture Truffaut has given us in ages.

It takes place during the Nazi occupation of Paris, where Catherine Deneuve runs a small theater company. Her Jewish husband has ostensibly fled the country, but is really living in the basement of the theater and only his wife is in on the secret. Truffaut takes on playachting in "The Last Metro" as he took on moviemaking in "Day for Night." But the historical dimension (less harrowing than in, say, "Playing for Time" on Tv) lends an extra depth to the new film, which deals compassionately with a complicated and troubling period in France's past.

As usual, Truffaut loves his characters with a contagious generosity. Some of the most exuberant moments come from simple expressions of affection, as when a man calmly reveals the magnitude of his feeling for his wife. The emotions are complicated, to be sure, and the characters don't always make the right or even the moral decision. But most of them mean well, most of the time, and they're doing what counts most in a Truffaut picture: conquering the odds by dint of their own strength.

Once again, the filmmaker's real concern is survival -- and even Truffaut has rarely handled this familiar theme with the richness and grace to be found in "The Last Metro."

It's good to see Truffaut hitting his stride again, after a few years of less scintillating activity. But it's too bad this coincides with a revival of the old Godard-Truffaut feud.

They were cronies in the revolutionary days of the New Wave, back in the 1950 s when they brathed new life into a stuffy French cinema, and had an impact wherever movies are seen. Soon the radical Godard moved toward esoterid films with overt political content, while Truffaut stayed with more traditional subjects and Godard started denouncing his old friend.

At the recent New York festival, Godard announced that Truffaut is a good screenwriter -- a major virtue -- but a poor director. Truffaut responded a few days later with brilliant aplomb: "I know Godard feels all my films are bad," he said. "As for me, I think all his films are good." Let's hope that lays the matter to rest for good.

Godard's new picture is called "Sauve qui peut (la vie)," which is translated as Every Man for Himself. After years of aesthetic exile, preoccupied with radical politics and wild visual experimentation, this is clearly a comback film , aimed at a wide audience. Unfortunately, many nonradical viewers will be repelled by the occasional raw language and bizarre sexuality of the movie. In choosing his metaphor for contemporary decadence, Godard has opened the door to some uncommonly unsettling images.

This metaphor is prostitution, but the activity appears to be wrapped up with capitalistic corruption. On a technical level, "Every Man for Himself" is as astonishing as any film in Godard's career, from "Breathless" to "Number Two."

Most revolutionary is his use of stop-motion photography, an effect made possible by video techniques. By stopping or slowing down important shots, Godard analyzes their contents, much as the editing process customarily "analyzes" a scene into its component parts.

The director also uses music as a key element -- as striking as the visual component, at times -- and even emulates some recent activity by his fellow New Waver and old pal Jacques Rivette, by dragging the off-screen musicians into view near the end of the show.

For all this innovation, however, and despite the occasional creepy vulgarities of his new picture, Godard remains a movie purist. As he told me during a recent interview, "These fancy pieces of equipment they use in Hollywood -- the Steadicam and all that -- are just gadgets. They don't help to make good cinema. It's like giving a fancy new pen to Joyce or Dostoevsky and telling them it will now be easier to write!"

Yet even now, Godard is at the edge of experimentation in certain areas. For example, he is preparing a new project for Francis Ford Coppola, using a video camera to shoot a visual "script" for a movie. Says Godard, "If you ask to read the screenplay, we'll tell you it's impossible. But you can lookm at it, if you like."

This is part of Godard's drive to revolutionize another element of filmmaking -- the financial aspect. After using inexpensive video and 8-mm equipment to assemble a "study" (much as a painter might make a sketch or build a model), the big money can be spent more efficiently when the real filming occurs. Also, according to Godard, the image should come first in moviemaking. If you think about it, it's kind of backward to begin with the written word and thenm move toward the visual element.

Godard agrees with my observation that video equipment is too easy to use, in some respects, and tends to bring out any shred of self-indulgence that may be lurking within a filmmaker. Yet he feels video can be a useful tool and is delighted with the slow- and stop-motion effects in his new picture. "In life, we don't do everything -- walking, talking, eating, working -- at the same speed ," he says. "Somebody I'd like to arrange a film s [that] slow-motion is the normal time, and the regular 24-frames-per-second looks all speeded up."

Godard evidently wants movies to mirror the feel, more than just the look, of life. This seems to me like a continuation of his longtime fascination with documenttary movies, and his longtime refusal to draw a firm line between documentary and fiction.

He still believes there is more documentary than you'd expect in a Hollywood comedy or western by Howard Hawks, and more fiction than you'd expect in an ethnological study by his hero Jean Rouch. "Documentary and fiction are two ways of entering the same room," he told me, confirming this. Through his new stop-motion technique, studying figures as well as characters, he is simply "coming into that same house again, only through the second floor window."

Godard is not too pleased with the general state of films today. "Nobody pays any attention to work," he says, pointing out an area often neglected by movies, but perhaps forgetting that Truffaut makes a habit of always showig his characters at their jobs.

"It's all boy-meets-girl in today's movies," he laments. "You don't even see people working at sports. Since there's nothing but love, it all loses meaning, and they don't even work at the problems of that.m In the old days of cinema, actors and directors could build a whole scene from somebody drinking a glass of milk. Look at Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy. Everyone had problems to work out. Now that's all disappeared, and there's nothing but self- indulgence."

In a 1962 interview, reprinted in Tom Milne's useful book "Godard on Godard," the filmaker says that "beauty -- the splendon of truth -- has two poles. there are directors who seek the truth, which, if they find it, will necessarily be beautiful; others seek beauty, which, if they fine it, will also be true. One finds these two poles in documentary and fiction."

From which pole does Godard start? The old answer still seems true today: "From documentary, I think, in order to give it the truth of fiction."

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