WILL the '90s be a time of revitalized French filmmaking? Or is some other nation taking over as the capital of European cinema - perhaps a longtime rival like Italy, an upstart like Finland, or one of the newly energized countries to the east? France has always had a special importance in world film. It's one of the places where cinema was invented - the Lumi`ere brothers and Georges M'eli`es were among the earliest movie pioneers - and its ``New Wave'' filmmakers, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Fran,cois Truffaut, revolutionized Western filmmaking styles during the '60s.
There have been fallow periods along the way, however, and the second half of the 1980s was one of them. Some old masters, such as Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, made noteworthy but second-rank productions; others, such as Mr. Godard, seemed to be running on empty.
Things hit bottom in 1988, when the New York Film Festival - a major entry point for European films into the important American market - showed a grand total of one French production. As a programmer of that festival, I was disappointed at the quality of French contenders, but not entirely surprised, since the trend had already been building for a couple of years.
Meanwhile, other European countries have started showing unexpected strength. Pedro Almod'ovar, ever feisty and surprising, has put Spain back on the world-cinematic map. Comedy specialist Maurizio Nichetti and the gifted Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio, are showing that Italy's cinematic talents haven't vanished. Two more brothers, Aki and Mika Kaurismaki, seem determined to make Finland a major-league presence. And the national cinemas of Eastern Europe, still regrouping after last year's tumultuous events, could soon make major contributions.
But don't count the French out yet, because signs of a major revival are stirring. Godard unveiled his most brilliant film in years at last spring's Cannes Film Festival - it's called ``Nouvelle Vague,'' named after the ``New Wave'' movement he spearheaded - and Mr. Rohmer's exquisite ``Tale of Springtime'' will join it on this year's New York film-fest roster. So will a ferocious Holocaust drama called ``Dr. Pettiot,'' directed by Christian de Chalonge, a new filmmaker of amazing promise.
Jean-Paul Rappeneau's conventional but swashbuckling version of ``Cyrano de Bergerac'' won two prizes (including one for Gerard Depardieu as best actor) at Cannes this year, and will come to American screens soon after a special showing at the Toronto Festival of Festivals.
At the moment, France's most prominent film export is a drama called ``Life and Nothing But,'' directed by Bertrand Tavernier and due to open in American theaters this month, about a year after scoring a success at the last New York film fest. It features veteran actor Philippe Noiret in his 100th screen role, playing a World War I army officer who helps two women sort through the chaos of the war's aftermath.
It is ironic, and perhaps symptomatic of France's recent difficulties in the world-film arena, that Mr. Tavernier, a very French filmmaker, is best known to Americans for an English-language production: ``Round Midnight,'' with saxophone player Dexter Gordon as a troubled character based on certain American jazz musicians. Although it's not universally admired (Spike Lee said he wanted to counteract jazz movies like ``Round Midnight'' and ``Bird'' with ``Mo' Better Blues,'' his own current jazz picture), it is Tavernier's most successful work, building more energy and visual appeal than most of his French pictures.
``Life and Nothing But,'' originally called ``La Vie et rien d'autre,'' finds Tavernier back in France, and dealing with a very French story. It focuses on two women sifting through the destruction and confusion of the Great War: a Parisian aristocrat searching for her husband, declared missing in action, and a young provincial schoolteacher hunting for her fiance.
They meet a cynical officer who runs the War Casualties Identification Bureau; he's preoccupied with pinning names and identities on corpses, so that women like these can return home and get on with their lives.
The officer also has another assignment, however, that's ironically opposite to his primary job: He's supposed to find a truly ``unknown soldier'' who can be buried in a national ceremony. After a bit of twisting and turning, some of it rather melodramatic, the movie comes to a bittersweet conclusion for him and the women he helps.
``Life and Nothing But'' finds Tavernier at his peak as an image-maker. The film has a vivid and compelling look - thanks to Bruno de Keyzer's typically fine cinematography - that sensitively complements the capable performances by Mr. Noiret as the officer, Pascale Vignal as the teacher, and Sabine Azema (from Tavernier's popular ``A Sunday in the Country'') as the Parisian.
Tavernier is not equally strong as a storyteller, unfortunately. As in many of his films - from ``The Clockmaker'' through his new ``Daddy Nostalgia,'' which was a thudding disappointment at Cannes this year despite more of his gorgeous images - the pace of ``Life and Nothing But'' is often plodding and listless, draining energy from characters and events that would seem far more involving in more dynamic circumstances.
Tavernier's films are often well-liked despite this problem, however, and ``Life and Nothing But'' has enough assets (already reflected in a long list of European prizes) to be a likely candidate for success wherever it travels. It deserves some of the credit for what may soon become a full-scale revival of France's leading position in European filmmaking - a revival that's sure to gather momentum with the increasingly wide exposure of such truly excellent French productions as Godard's and Rohmer's latest work.