The French are shaking up old notions of what a film is

If you go to a French film these days, there's a strong chance you'll see Gerard Depardieu in a leading role. He's an unlikely star, with his heavyset body, jowly face, and unruly hair. But audiences -- and some of the top directors in Europe -- seem to find him irresistible. He works harder than almost anybody, appearing in picture after picture. Americans have seen him in dramas ranging from "Loulou" to "1900," and shortly he'll be visible in "The Last Metro," a superb new Francois Truffaut film about Paris during the Nazi occupation.

Depardieu's latest vehicle is "Mon Oncle d'Amerique," a highly unusual movie that mixes fiction and documentary techniques. But he isn't the only big name connected with this picture. In fact, since we live in the age of the superstar director, it's possible that more viewers are being attracted by the filmmaker's name than by the star's. In any case, the picture is doing great business in a variety of American cities, and most of the credit is going to director Alain Resnais -- the cinematic wizard who has created such classics as "Hiroshima mon amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad" as well as the more recent "Stavisky . . ." and "Providence."

"Mon Oncle d'Amerique" tells the story of three characters whose lives don't come together until much of the film has passed. Mr. Depardieu plays a farm boy who moves to the city and faces problems of work and family. Nicole Garcia and Roger-Pierre play Parisians with more ambition than sense.

The plot unfolds as these people interact. But the movie goes farther than this. Mr. Resnais wants to find the reasons for the behavior of his characters. So he treats them as subjects in an experiment, stopping the narrative to take a closer look at hidden motivations. There are even a few hilarious moments when a scene is performed straight and then repeated with the characters dressed as gigantic laboratory rats.

Many viewers may disagree with the notions of behavior suggested by the film. I found them very limited -- much too simplistic to serve, by themselves, as a satisfactory explanation of why people act as they do. But the ideas are just one part of Resnais's great intellectual puzzle, which owes as much to his love of comic books as to his admiration for scholar Henri Laborit, who inspired some of the picture's ideas.

In his admirable book "Alain Resnais" critic James Monaco relates his work to a cinematic theory: that "realism" is usually associated with the image on the screen, while "expressionism" is associated with cutting from one shot to another.

In his new film, though, Mr. Resnais fools all of us. He never sneaks something into a shot to make it seem "realistic." Rather, he cuts cheerfully to anything he pleases -- from characters in a room to animals in a cage -- and achieves the greatest realism of all, by emphasizing that the whole thing is a movie in the first place!

The refreshing "movieness" of "Mon Oncle d'Amerique" comes largely from its structure. "Movies always have theories of behaviour," Mr. Resnais told me during a recent visit to New York. "But usually they are hidden away in the plot. I wanted to put them up front. So we arrived at a certain structure, where you can see the same thing three or four different ways -- as in life itself."

These words recall other recent experiments by French filmmakers who, like Resnais, once belonged to the energetic "new wave" group. In "Every Man for Himself," Jean-Luc Godard shows events as widely different speeds, because "in life" things don't all occur at the same pace. This gives parts of the picture a documentary quality, which suits him fine, because he has always refused a sharp division between fiction and fact. The same goes for Jacques Rivette, who was disappointed with his own recent film "Merry-Go-Round" because it had too much story, and not enough of the "plastic values" and luxurious improvisations he loves to record on film.

In sum, the French are shaking up our old notions about realism and make-believe. As Mr. Resnais says, quoting one of his favorite authors, "Films are always documentaries. There are documentaries about grasshoppers, and documentaries about Cary Grant."

For Resnais, one of the chief joys of film is the connecting of images, which allows unexpected meanings to emerge in both fiction and documentary. "I love to splice," he told me. "I love to find the gue that holds together two different things. I want all my viewers to realize they are at the movies, and what's on the screen are images. I try not to fool them. I'd rather be more -- cunning. . . ."

So if you want to, think of "Mon Oncle d'Amerique" as a documentary about star Gerard Depardieu.

But don't get thrown by all this cinematic speculation. It's only a movie after all, and Mr. Resnais is the first one to remember that. "I never set out to make a complicated film," he says. "but I feel that if the structure isn't provocative, the audience will be bored. Of course, I could be wrong. But the one reason I would complicate a film would be to make it more emotional, not more intellectual.

"You see, my goal is emotion. After 15 or 20 minutes, I hope the spectator becomes oriented to what's going on, and this will give him a physical pleasure. It's like being lost in the forest. And then suddenly you find your road to the house in the distance, with the little light in the window. . . ."

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