French director attuned to youth. Hollywood could learn from Rohmer

THE Hollywood people who make films for the so-called youth market ought to hang their heads in shame. While they're cranking out epics like ``Cocktail'' and ``License to Drive,'' one of Europe's great filmmakers is exploring the same kind of subject - young people, young love, young ambitions - with an intelligence and sensitivity that are rarely dreamed of in the big American studios. For the past eight years, Eric Rohmer has been working on a series of films called ``Comedies and Proverbs.'' Each one takes its cue from a French proverb, developing a simple idea in amusing and unexpected directions. You'd never mistake one of these youth-oriented pictures for a Tom Cruise romance or a ``Top Gun'' sequel; they're too subtle and soft-spoken for that. But they're not heavy ``art movies'' fraught with symbols and messages, either. At their best, they're as bright and funny and entertaining as anything Hollywood has to offer. And they're smart and literate, as a bonus.

The latest in this series is called ``Boyfriends and Girlfriends'' in its American version. The original title is ``L'Ami de mon amie,'' which means, ``my girlfriend's boyfriend.'' That's the key to the story, which was inspired by the proverb ``The friends of my friends are my friends.'' It's about the problem of staying faithful to the people close to you - and to your own hopes and dreams - even when romance and friendship get tangled up in complicated ways.

I won't try to reconstruct the plot, because it's pretty mixed up at times - on purpose, since the characters are mixed up, too. It's about two young women named Blanche and L'ea, who meet in an ultramodern Paris suburb. They become good friends with each other, and also with each other's male companions: Fabien, a sports-lover, and Alexandre, an engineer. As flirtation turns to romance, the couples do some splitting up and switching over. Eventually there's a happy ending for everyone, but not before the friends and lovers meet some serious challenges to their relationships.

What makes this more than a frivolous summertime comedy is the intelligence of Rohmer's approach. He realizes this is not a story about earthshaking events. But he knows the characters take their romantic problems seriously, and he has compassion for them. He also has respect for their good intentions. All of them are basically decent, good-natured people, and it's clear the filmmaker is not only interested in studying their psychology - he likes them and enjoys sharing their company.

At the same time, he's fascinated with the customs and folkways of today's young people, and seeks to understand these better by probing them in his narrative. Rohmer himself is among the older generation of French moviemakers, and his stance of gentle detachment is refreshing at a time when so many directors seem scarcely more mature than the dubiously chosen people in their films. Among other accomplishments, he draws some revealing connections between the habits of his characters and the glitzy, super-modern suburb they live in.

Rohmer is best known to moviegoers for an earlier series called ``Six Moral Tales,'' about men facing and overcoming new temptations in their lives. His current ``Comedies and Proverbs'' series is much lighter in spirit, but it has produced some superbly directed films - especially ``Le Beau mariage,'' about a teen-age girl searching for a perfect relationship, and ``Summer,'' about a young woman facing a lonely and loveless vacation.

``Boyfriends and Girlfriends'' isn't as memorable as those pictures, and it's less imposing than the best ``Moral Tales,'' such as ``My Night at Maud's'' and ``Chloe in the Afternoon.'' But its mixture of laughter and tears is as delightful as it is bittersweet.

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