``The Moderns'' takes place in Paris more than 60 years ago, when expatriate American writers and artists helped make it the cultural capital of the Western world. In subject and setting, it's a cheerfully backward-looking film. In style, it's modern in the fashion of the '80s rather than the '20s, with scenes of decadence more explicit than anything one is likely to find in the pages of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Gertrude Stein. There's an almost legendary quality, of course, to thoughts of Paris in the 1920s. The mention of it brings visions of Stein and Hemingway trading brilliant remarks in elegant salons, surrounded by a creative atmosphere that still seems overwhelmingly strong.
That's what makes this period an ideal subject for Alan Rudolph, a filmmaker who has carved out his own individualistic niche in the movie world. In pictures like ``Choose Me'' and ``Remember My Name,'' and even the recent ``Made in Heaven,'' he has shown a much stronger interest in mood and atmosphere than in conventional story lines. ``The Moderns'' is his long-awaited journey into the Paris of Hemingway, Stein, assorted journalists and Surrealists, and any number of hangers-on, has-beens, never-were's, and hope-to-be's. Many are American expatriates, and all are infatuated with the world of art, literature, and European glamour.
The hero of the tale is a composite of all the Americans who never quite found the fame and glory they thought Paris would drop into their laps. His name is Nick Hart, and although he's a painter, he earns his living doing mere caricatures for a newspaper gossip column. He wouldn't have much of a story if a beautiful woman named Rachel didn't walk into his life. He falls in love with her on the spot. But she's married to a businessman named Bertram Stone, and soon the two men are having a vicious feud. Hart's life gets still more complicated when he meets the suave Nathalie de Ville, who wants to use his talents in an art-forgery scheme.
``The Moderns'' is at its cinematic best when it doesn't busily spin its yarn but simply visits with the characters and wanders through their Paris at an easy pace. Rudolph is a master at creating vivid moods, and he's helped here by the eloquent camera work of Toyomichi Kurita and delicious music composed by Mark Isham.
The story of ``The Moderns'' isn't half as original or enticing, in fact, as the atmosphere that surrounds it. One feels almost let down when Hart moves further into his infatuation with Rachel or his intrigue with Nathalie de Ville; the movie was doing fine without this Hollywood-style adventuring. It doesn't help when the filmmakers go for symbolism - giving the feuding men opposite names like Hart and Stone, for example.
Still, there are many scenes when director Rudolph allows us simply to bask in Parisian sights and sounds. And since the actors are fully in tune with his instinctive brand of moviemaking, the performances are superb. The cast is headed by Keith Carradine as Hart and John Lone as Stone, his steely-eyed antagonist. Also marvelous are Wallace Shawn as Oiseau, the gossip columnist; Geraldine Chaplin as conniving Nathalie; and Genevieve Bujold as a friendly gallery owner.
``The Moderns'' is an offbeat and uneven movie. But its portrait of bygone Paris is the next-best thing to a trip across the Atlantic.