Here come the French again - headed for your local theater

Hail, hail, most of the gang is here. And they're headed for your local theater, along with a few new friends. Who?

None other than the hardy band of French filmmakers who used to be called the New Wave group. All its major members are still active in the movie world, and many had entries in the 1981 New York Film Festival that just ended. Riding a wave of audience and critical enthusiasm, most of these pictures have already rushed into commercial territory, along with movies by compatriots not associated with the New Wave label. It's a great day for the Gallic, who are once again flooding American screens.

The most triumphant is ''My Dinner With Andre'' directed by Louis Malle, who first burst on the scene with ''The Lovers'' back in 1959. His latest is actually an American film, shot in the United States with American actors. Yet the versatile Malle is very much a product of French cinema, and in his new movie he combines European literacy and American energy into an exhilarating and utterly unexpected experience.

And a controversial one: Critics at the New York festival were deeply divided over its merits. Some called it ''uncinematic,'' and you can hardly blame them, since most of the movie dwells on a simple dinner conversation between two men, shot in constant closeups across an elegant restaurant table.

Fortunately, others didn't worry about rating ''Andre'' on a cinema scale from 1 to 10. Film is where you find it, and if ''Andre'' isn't cinematic, we certainly need more of whatever it is. In fact, like many experimental films, it resembles a piece of music - a jazz duet for two soloists who take turns trading riffs and runs. Played by two real-life theater personalities - director Andre Gregory and playwright Wallace Shawn, speaking their own script under their own names - the medium is voices instead of instruments, words instead of notes. Much of the talk, about everything from mystical experiences to electric blankets, is less than profound. Some is downright silly. Yet even the goofiest moments serve a purpose, heightening the hilarity of the occasion and deepening the moments when, almost despite themselves, these odd conversationalists soar willy-nilly toward the sublime.

Malle is an unpredictable filmmaker, moving easily from the comedy of ''Zazie'' to the tragedy of ''Lacombe Lucien,'' from the documentary of ''Phantom India'' to the surrealism of ''Black Moon'' and the Hollywood humor of ''Atlantic City.'' Of all major French filmmakers, he's the one most likely to have given us an opus as offbeat as ''My Dinner With Andre.''

By contrast, Francois Truffaut prides himself on a certain consistency, a willingness to abide by the traditions of his own career. In his latest, ''The Woman Next Door,'' he continues to explore his obsession with obsession, telling the bittersweet tale of a rekindled romance that ends in tragedy.

One of France's leading stars, Gerard Depardieu, plays a reasonably contented but somewhat unstable man who lives in the country with his wife and child. A new Truffaut discovery, Fanny Ardent, plays an old flame who coincidentally moves into the neighborhood. Faced with this happenstance, their fatal mistake is to respond with guilt rather than with candor to their spouses. The wheels of unhappiness are set in motion, and gather momentum as the film proceeds.

Truffaut brings a mixture of moods to the tale, capturing the dark compulsions that underlie the sunny suburban settings of his story. He loses control of the material at times, allowing moments that are falsely high-strung or self-consciously romantic. Yet he never verges on moroseness as he did in ''The Green Room,'' his last love story of comparable sadness. And his compassion for his characters, while it has been more cheerfully expressed, has rarely been more sharply etched.

Another controversial item from a veteran New Waver is ''The Aviator's Wife, '' by Eric Rohmer, who shares the enthusiasm of Malle and Truffaut for the joys and challenges of language. Indeed, he's another one who has been accused of ''uncinematic'' sins in the past, in his talkfest ''My Night at Maud's'' and his literally literary adaptations of ''The Marquise of O . . .'' and ''Perceval le Gallois,'' from German and Old French works, respectively. The hugely entertaining aspects of these films didn't prevent Rohmer from gaining the reputation of a chatterbox.

''The Aviator's Wife'' is one of his lightest movies, beginning a new series called ''Comedies and Proverbs.'' But don't go looking for glib humor, even if the plot is a romantic escapade about a young law student whose heartstrings are tugged in two directions at once, and who takes a break from his dilemma by impulsively trailing a former rival through the parks and boulevards of Paris. There's a curious sense of melancholy beneath the colorful surface of the story, and the problems of the characters are deeply felt.

Yet this is a minor work, full of words in the usual Rohmer fashion while lacking the depth and heft of his best films. The subtitle is ''You Can't Think of Nothing,'' meaning that something is always on your mind, even when you wish it weren't. Disappointingly, there's less on the mind of ''The Aviator's Wife'' than there might have been, despite its considerable pictorial grace, and its strong echoes of the stirring moral sense that's a constant Rohmer quality. It remains to be seen whether the ''Comedies and Proverbs'' will achieve the celebrated status of the ''Six Moral Tales'' that were his last series. But the new effort is off to a low-key start.Other recent French films heading for the commercial circuit are by directors not associated with the New Wave troupe. Maurice Pialat likes to make fiction movies that have the look of documentary truth, and that's just what he does in the unassuming ''Graduate First,'' a diverting but small-time picture that joins the zillion other French dramas about somebody's bittersweet youth. Bertrand Blier often deals with compulsive sexuality, sometimes in the offensive terms of his ''Going Places'' and ''Femmes Fatales.'' In his new ''Beau Pere,'' a teenage girl falls in love with her stepfather after her mother's death. By far the most splendidly filmed of Blier's major movies, it is regrettably shallow in its views of love and sex and makes a discomfiting number of questionable assumptions about the nature of adolescence.While this picture has been promptly launched on the theatrical circuit, with much promotional fanfare, it is unfortunate that some superior films, also introduced in the recent New York festival, are sitting on the shelf because they don't seem salable enough. Two of these are a matched set of short features by veteran filmmaker Agnes Varda.The best of the pair, ''Mur Murs'' - translated as ''Mural Murals'' - is her funny, touching, and invigorating view of wall paintings in Los Angeles, and the mixed bag of artists responsible for them. A hitherto neglected subject, even among art experts, it proves captivating as viewed through Varda's peripatetic camera and whimsical narration. Meanwhile, picking up where this leaves off, ''Documenteur'' gives a contrastingly sober portrait of a woman living with her young child in a California suburb, where street scenes and seascapes take on the resonance of the main character's loneliness. An adult film, touching on sexual and emotional as well as purely practical problems, it is identified as ''an emotion picture'' - not as accessible as its companion piece, ''Mur Murs,'' but generating a somber energy all its own.Sadly, one of the most extraordinary new French films may not be seen commercially at all, at least outside its native country. ''Le Pont du Nord,'' translated as ''North Bridge,'' is the work of Jacques Rivette, whose wholly personal style has made him something of a cinematic outcast, despite the rapture he has induced in some perceptive critics. By his own testimony, the mainstream rejects him because he cares less about stories and characters than about structure and plastic values. Meanwhile, the experimental set views him with suspicion because he works with the biggest movie stars in France, who evidently adore working in his loose and improvisatory style. ''Le Pont du Nord'' is of a piece with all Rivette's major works, from the early ''Paris Belongs to Us'' through the masterpiece ''Out One: Spectre'' and the recent ''Duelle.'' Again the setting is Paris, and conspirational doings - strongly felt but never quite defined - are swirling all over the place. The plot focuses on a woman (Bulle Ogier) recently released from prison, and a peculiar person from ''elsewhere'' (played by Bulle's daughter Pascale) who decides to protect her from the forces of - well, whatever forces there might turn out to be.Before long, in typical Rivette fashion, they stumble on an enigmatic map that seems to turn all Paris into a giant ''board game'' like Snakes and Ladders or the Mother Goose Game. Determined to plumb this mystery, they start moving from square to square, hunting the finish line while dreading the ''pit,'' the ''dungeon,'' and other traps. Part thriller, part comedy, part melodrama, and pure cinema all the way, the film traces their adventures to an unlikely conclusion that solves everything and nothing at the same time.To appreciate ''Le Pont du Nord'' you have to enter Rivette's world fully, and it helps if you've seen his other movies. For the viewer who's willing to suspend everyday logic along with disbelief, however, the trip is exciting and fascinating, a bit long but filled with surprises for the eye and the mind. It's enormously frustrating that Rivette's colorful and capricious style is considered unmarketable by most movie distributors, to the point where (with a couple of exceptions) his films are unshown even at the ''art'' theaters that ought to be pushing such adventurous and pleasurable stuff with all the resources at their disposal, as an occasional public service if not part of the regular repertoire.Rivette is an international treasure, a true poet of motion pictures. When will he be accorded the same respect as, say Francois Truffaut - a commercially successful director who positively reveres Rivette? ''Le Pont du Nord'' may never replace ''Mommie Dearest'' at our neighborhood movie palaces, for sure. But shouldn't everyone have the chance for a good look at it, giving the art of cinema at least a fighting change against the latest schlock?

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.