Foreign films help bail out the winter season

While the American scene stays in the doldrums, some fine fine foreign films are bailing out the winter season. They come from England, France, and Australia -- as far from Hollywood as you can get -- and they are as unpredictable as they are fascinating.

ake Tess, for example, based on the Thomas Hardy novel "Tess of the D'Urbervilles. It's also an eminently responsible film, lacking the slightest hint of director Roman Polanski's past cinematic weakness for the morbid and the bizarre.

Indeed, the flaw of the film is that it's too cautious, cinematically. There's hardly an adventurous scene in it: Hardy himself took more risks with the expectations of his day (and paid the price of heavy censorship). Mr.Polanski's version seems rather stolid, though he sticks firmly to Hardy's moving tale of a lass whose love life carries her to a tragic fate. Yet it's sensitively directed, in its own conservative way, and luminiously photographed.

The talented cast include Nastassia Kinski and Peter Firth. (After receiving such unfavorable publicity about Mr. Polanski's personal life, it's heartening to see him return to the screen with such an immaculately controlled picture).

Australia has been making more movie news lately. Peter Weir's off-beat drama "The Plumber" made a strong showing on TV a few weeks ago, and now there's a big new film from the man who struck gold with "The Getting of Wisdom." His name is Bruce Berresford, and his new hit is called 'Breaker' Morant.

As in "The Getting of Wisdom" and many other Australian movies, the setting is around 1900. The unlikely heroes are Australian soldiers in the Boer War, who have been accused of murdering prisoners. The film is basicially a courtroom drama, pivoting on the moral distinctions between "fair" and "unfair" acts of war -- and on the court's decision to stifle this issue by railroading the defendants to the gallows'.

The issue of morality in war has been raised in movies before, most notably in "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," by Michael powell and Emeric Pressberger, which addressed the matter so defiantly during World War II that Winston Churchill is alleged to have attempted to smother the entire production (as is claimed through documents reproduced in Ian Christie's useful book, "Powell, pressberger and Others"). In "'Breaker' Morant," Mr. Berrisford attacks the subject in dramatic rather than ideological terms, though the conclusion does amount to an implicit denunciation of capital punishment. It's an old-fashioned movie and often a powerful one. It's easy to understand why it has become the biggest hit of all time in its home country.

By contrast, there's nothing old-fashioned about Mon Oncle d'Amerique, an innovative new drama from France. But then, director Alain Resnais has filmed few moments that aren't innovative, in such works as "Last Year at Marienbad" and "Providence."

in his new film, Mr. Resnais probes into human behavior. Most movies just tell their stories and leave us to figure out the motivations behind them. Mr. Resnais goes a step further by treating his story as if it were a textbook study of human relations and responses.

One moment we're watching the plot about a woman who becomes involved with two very different men. The next moment, we're watching a commentary on the action, spoken by a real-life student of human behavior. And just when you though there were no more surprises, the actors do an earlier scene over again, wearing animal costumes -- making an ironic and hilarious point about the all-too-simple roots of the "dramatic" moments in this life-mirroring work of art.

Of course, most of the movie is pure plot in the usual fashion. But even on its most obvious levels, Mr. Resnais holds our attention masterfully, tracing three people from childhood through various crises of maturity and immaturity.

As for the commentary, Mr. Resnais doesn't mean it as "the final truth" about behavior. Rather, by his approach he invites his viewers to come up with their own ideas, which may flatly disagree with the speculations spoken on the screen. Thus the spectators' responses become another facet of his wry intellectual puzzle, which is as entertaining as it is stimulating -- and all named after some chimerical "uncle from America" who never even shows up. You may decide its theories are flimsy, or even hogwash. But even so, you'll find it a thinking person's picture, all the way.

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