Filmmaker Bresson sheds 'austerity' label with 'L'Argent'.

SOME filmmakers have a one-word label stuck firmly on their work. Alfred Hitchcock will always be associated with ''suspense,'' for example, and Jean Renoir with ''humanism.''

A more forbidding tag - ''austerity'' - hangs about French director Robert Bresson, which helps explain why he's less well known than the others. A thinker more than a showman, he wants to explore ideas and philosophical questions in his movies. So as not to distract attention from intellectual content, he generally avoids eye-catching shots and bravura performances; instead he uses a no-nonsense visual style, often putting nonactors in leading roles.

Just as Hitchcock made comedies and Renoir had a cynical streak, however, the ''austerity'' label is too broad and simple to describe Bresson's work accurately. He offered keen suspense in ''Pickpocket'' and rousing action in ''Lancelot du Lac,'' for instance, without obscuring the depth of thought in either film; and his wistful portrait of Paris in ''Four Nights of a Dreamer'' has as much sheer loveliness as any Hollywood romance.

With his latest film Bresson might beat the ''austerity'' rap at last. Simply called ''L'Argent,'' or ''Money,'' it's a contemporary melodrama about a young worker who is ruined by a tragic chain of events after a counterfeit bill falls into his hands.

The performances are clever, the story is strong, and the culmination is so grisly it might have suited the horror-flick circuit if not for Bresson's habitual restraint. Yet every shot plays a part in the director's underlying scheme - to probe the actual and symbolic roles of money in society, and grander yet, to explore the relationship between matters of the flesh and the human spirit, as manifested by the struggle between aspiration and corruption.

Yes, it's serious stuff, even if less ''austere'' than ''The Trial of Joan of Arc'' or ''The Diary of a Country Priest.'' Still, its walloping story and swift pace might carry ''L'Argent'' to a broader audience - most of Bresson's earlier work being unseen by average moviegoers although revered by thoughtful critics.

In any case, ''L'Argent'' shows no relaxation of the director's high standards or distinctive style: To portray an auto chase, for example, he gives us not ten minutes of ''French Connection'' hijinks, but just one shot of a foot pressing an accelerator, timing and framing the image so precisely that the effect is heightened beyond all expectation. Similar inventiveness runs through the whole 90 minutes of rigorous yet often exhilarating screen activity.

The last Bresson film (a meditative melodrama called ''The Devil, Probably'') never found its way into American release despite many excellent qualities. It's heartening to see ''L'Argent'' get commercial distribution, so more viewers can discover Bresson's ingenuity in exploring heady philosophical issues through the physical vocabulary of cinema, which he has mastered as few others have.

Filmmaker Ruiz

Raul Ruiz has led a busy life.

He set up as a filmmaker in his native Chile, becoming associated with the national film agency under the socialist Allende government. After the overthrow of Allende he fled to Europe, finally settling in France.

In the past ten years he has turned out more than 30 film and video works, ranging from several minutes to several hours long, shot quickly and cheaply. His scripts rarely go beyond a few ideas or notations, according to an account of Ruiz compiled by the Art Institute of Chicago.

Lately his reputation has been growing in international film circles, even though most of his European projects have been commissioned for television, which tends to diminish their prestige. Now his works are arriving on American screens. A touring retrospective of Ruiz films opened last weekend at the Collective for Living Cinema in New York and is slated for the Chicago Film Center, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, Calif. Also due soon is the commercial release of his ''Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting.'' And his ''Three Crowns of a Sailor'' is part of the ''Perspectives on French Cinema'' series now being presented in New York by the French film industry.

Critics seem to agree that the key metaphor in Ruiz's work is the experience of exile. Certainly this is a central theme in his brilliant ''Of Great Events and Ordinary People,'' an examination of the 1978 French elections, which leaves its ostensible subject behind and becomes a grand meditation on the nature of cinema itself. And a sense of exile, or at least dislocation and disorientation, courses through the dark whimsy of ''Dog's Dialogue,'' a delirious melodrama built on incongruous pairings of sound and image.

But to ''explain'' his films with one word or phrase would do them great injustice, judging from the examples I've seen. Even the idea of exile is particularly complicated in relation to Ruiz's work; he apparently regards being an artist as itself a kind of dislocation, as he indicated in a 1980 interview with the journal Afterimage. In any case, Ruiz's challenging vision is looming on the American horizon. It deserves a hearty welcome.

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