Godard's new mainstream film rejects romantic approach to drama

How does he do it? If other directors showed a fraction of Jean-Luc Godard's experimental spirit, moviegoers would hoot them off the wide screen and into the avant-garde ghetto.

Godard keeps it up year after year, though -- breaking or ignoring every rule in the book, yet finding international audiences for all but his most outrageous efforts.

So when he makes a picture as amusing and entertaining as ``D'etective,'' we can rest assured it's an aesthetic choice, not a commercial sellout. Godard has loved mainstream Hollywood movies since the beginning of his career, and has toyed with their styles and subjects in many works -- from ``Breathless'' on. In ``D'etective'' he pays tribute to them, and especially to the endless stream of thrillers he has chewed over as a fan, critic, and occasional dabbler in traditional cinema.

Typically for him, though, he doesn't imitate the films he's saluting. He explodes them instead, scrambling their conventions and clich'es into a sardonic new shape.

The result is a melodrama, a comedy, and a good-humored foray into the inspired mediocrity that Hollywood moguls used to have a patent on. It's also a study of romantic notions in art and their failure to meet today's emotional needs. Although the action is often ragged and sometimes in bad taste, notably in the sex and sexism departments, it's a substantial achievement that only Godard could have given us.

Much of the plot takes place in a hotel where a murder occurred years ago. Determined to solve the crime, a detective has holed up in a cramped room with lots of video equipment (one of Godard's obsessions) and a crony or two. Other characters include an airline pilot, a mobster boss, a bumbling young sleuth, and a prizefighter who walks around mumbling, ``I'll KO Tiger Jones,'' even though he appears to be Tiger Jones.

But story and characters aren't the point here. To prove it, Godard builds his plot to a climax of transcendent triteness that mocks the very idea of melodrama. The structure that interests him isn't the usual arc of rising and falling suspense. Rather, he's fascinated by the underpinnings -- visual tricks, editing ploys, bits of dialogue and music -- that normally do their work subtly, on the margins of a film.

Godard brings these to the foreground, playing with them like a mischievous kid while his characters grope their way through the mishmash of a plot. Especially deft is his use of classical music, which creeps through the underbrush of many scenes, heightening -- and implicitly criticizing -- the romantic expectations that films often encourage and pander to in their audiences. By his attitude of wry self-awareness, Godard rejects the romantic approach to drama, choosing to manipulate the raw materials o f his film rather than the people watching it. In so doing, he invites us to share his delight with the innards of cinema, hoping we'll approve the absence of things that are usually the reasons we go to movies in the first place.

``D'etective'' is often fun and stimulating to watch. Yet it's weakened by the silly elements in its screenplay and by a fixation on movie devices that aren't significant enough to support all the satire Godard heaps upon them. He also indulges his weakness for sexual humor at the expense of women, and fails to make the action coherent at a few points when it seems he really wants to. Making up for these flaws are the presences of Nathalie Baye and Jean-Pierre L'eaud, two especially fine performers in t he large and eccentrically chosen cast.

The film is dedicated, incidentally, to three Americans who deserve the honor: Edgar G. Ulmer, a master of poverty-row productions like ``Detour'' and ``The Black Cat'' in the days when brooding ``film noir'' thrillers were really noir; and John Cassavetes and Clint Eastwood, two versatile men whose directing skills eclipse their acting talents. The spirit of all three is clearly felt in ``D'etective,'' to its credit and its benefit.

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