From ingenious to nostalgic, French imports keep arriving

Of the films that have recently arrived from France, the most ingenious is Le Beau Mariage by Eric Rohmer. But it's a tricky one to describe. How do you pin down a picture that takes the most ordinary stuff of everyday life and charges it with an enchanted energy that's as marvelous as it is mundane?

It's not that ''Le Beau Mariage'' comments on the deepest levels of human experience, or even the most provocative ones. It's a slim story, aiming at grace and wit rather than profundity.

But the screenplay is so sharp, the characters so precisely drawn, and the mood so deliciously wry that the plot takes on surprising new resonances. Even as he charms us, Rohmer invites us to ponder the ethical and intellectual implications of his droll yarn. While that's no surprise from a filmmaker best-known for a series of ''Moral Tales,'' it's refreshing to encounter. And it gives a clue to the essence of Rohmer's art.

''A Good Marriage'' - to give the movie's English title - is the second in a new Rohmer series called ''Comedies and Proverbs.'' The rating is PG, due to a few seconds of dimly lit nudity in an early scene. The main character is Sabine, a bright young woman on the brink of maturity. She lives with a successful artist who is separated from his wife. But she resents his casual attitude toward their affair, and longs for something more serious and stable.

Then, in the kind of flash that occurs only in Rohmer films, she suddenly realizes that marriage is what she's after! So she stalks out of her lover's life and starts to hunt for a husband. Her quarry turns out to be a lawyer with all the qualifications except a noticeable interest in Sabine.

It's a film of many ironies. First among them is Sabine's conviction that she has stumbled on something new and radical here. A thoroughly modern Ms., she's certain that her plan of settling down with a good man amounts to a real innovation - which makes for a caustic comment on our restless and rootless age. Blithely unaware that her ''discovery'' is as old as mankind, she plunges toward wedlock with the determination of a trailblazer. And in a way, Rohmer does see her as a pioneer, groping her way toward a sense of commitment that many of her contemporaries would never bother to look for, much less be able to find.

The other ironies are subtler but just as rich. Most of them are expressed through characters: the mother who seems more ''up to date'' than her daughter, the sister who can't quite figure the whole situation out, and especially the lawyer who likes Sabine but can't imagine what to do about her.

Through it all, Sabine is fascinating to watch - as naive as a little girl, yet gritty enough to defy all comers in her insistence that a housewife's role can be the most fiercely independent of them all. She's as wise and foolish as they come, and it's a pleasure to watch her grow up before our very eyes.

There's not a villain in the picture, just well-meaning people who act on their best instincts and manage to be pleasantly goofy all the same. As in the best of his ''Moral Tales,'' such as ''My Night at Maud's'' and ''Chloe in the Afternoon,'' the filmmaker wants to work out the algebra of a simple ethical equation. There are few mysteries to the process; the characters are as direct and ordinary as they are young and engaging. The poetry is in the fluid images, the delicate rhythms, and the lucid performances that fill every scene, every shot, every frame.

Last year's entry in the new ''Comedies and Proverbs'' series, ''The Aviator's Wife,'' seemed trifling in comparison with such earlier Rohmer works as ''The Marquise of O. . .'' and the underrated ''Perceval le Gallois.'' Some may charge ''Le Beau Mariage'' with the same fault, given its lightness of touch and gentleness of step. But there's more substance to be found in Rohmer's lilting romance than in many a ponderous epic. Like such filmmaking compatriots as Robert Bresson and Francois Truffaut, he is concerned with nothing less than the emergence of moral balance in a potentially chaotic world. It would be a pity to undervalue the latest phase of his exploration on the grounds that it's too much fun.

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