FRENCH cinema is divided into two main branches nowadays. One branch, growing like mad, consists of commercialized ventures that aim for Hollywood-style profits with Hollywood-style methods. Examples are the thriller ``La Femme Nikita'' and the comedy ``Three Men and a Cradle,'' which were so Hollywooden that big studios promptly bought the rights to remake them as ``Point of No Return'' and ``Three Men and a Baby,'' respectively.
The other branch, bravely hanging in there, consists of thoughtful productions in the great tradition of European art cinema. Examples are recent dramas like ``Un Coeur en hiver'' and ``The Accompanist,'' which combine sensitive acting and picturesque cinematography with stories about human relations in the world of classical music.
Glimmering through both branches, meanwhile, are occasional flashes of the inventiveness and wit that characterized the most exhilarating of all phases in modern French cinema: the New Wave movement, which burst forth around 1960 in the early films of five young directors associated with Cahiers du cinema, the renowned French movie magazine.
Cahiers du cinema still exists today, and exerts a strong influence on the art-minded enclaves of France's film community. Since the magazine's outreach is international in scope, it's fitting that New York's adventurous Film Society of Lincoln Center has begun a policy of inviting the publication's editors to choose their favorite French movies for an annual New York minifestival.
Now in its third year, ``Cahiers du Cinema Selects...'' has become a valuable showcase for films and filmmakers that might otherwise be hidden from view by the busy parade of commercialized releases with large-scale advertising budgets and promotional campaigns.
This year's program features new works by no fewer than three of the original New Wave filmmakers, all of whom refined their aesthetic views as Cahiers critics before starting their directorial careers more than 30 years ago. Of the three, Jean-Luc Godard is the one who has clung most tenaciously to the energy, imagination, and iconoclasm that made this movement so vital during its glory days in the '60s and '70s.
His latest film, ``Helas pour moi,'' finds him as challenging, innovative, and all-around ornery as he ever was in the past. Also going strong is his enduring interest in religious and philosophical matters, which found its strongest expression in ``Hail Mary,'' released in 1984 and still his most controversial film.
``Helas pour moi,'' which translates as ``Woe Is Me,'' stars Gerard Depardieu as a stranger in town who falls in love with a beautiful woman and engages her in a series of enigmatic dialogues on deep and complex issues: What is the purpose of suffering? How is human experience related to awareness of spiritual realities? And above all, how can the sublimities of transcendent love be glimpsed by creatures bound in the imperfections of fleshly life?
Godard has no easy answers to these questions, nor does he have easy ways of posing these questions. As in his recent ``Nouvelle Vague'' and ``Histoire(s) du cinema,'' the content of ``Helas pour moi'' is fractured into countless fragments of word, picture, and gesture, calling on each spectator to decide how these pieces should be assembled and what conclusions might be drawn from them.
Dealing with subjects that soar beyond quick human understanding, Godard refuses to confine them within the ready-made structures of conventional cinema. His new film is as hard to grasp as the ineffable issues it calls to our attention. It is also stunningly beautiful in its radiant images, its densely layered soundtrack, and its evocative use of music.
Also in top form on the ``Cahiers'' program is Eric Rohmer, another New Wave veteran with strong religious interests. For the past few years he's been working on a quartet of films called ``Tales of the Four Seasons,'' and ``A Tale of Winter'' is the best in the series to date. It tells the story of a young woman who was separated from her new boyfriend by a silly mistake in communication and hasn't seen him in four years; now she's raising their child and refusing to accept the notion that she'll never see her lover again.
This story works delightfully well as a romantic comedy with a mellow mood and a warm sense of humanity. On a less obvious level, Rohmer makes it clear that his heroine's sense of confidence is not mere optimism. Instead, it grows from an intuitive confidence that faith in the ultimate rightness of the world will bring rich rewards, no matter how unlikely this may seem to those around her. Rarely has this great filmmaker been so successful at blending his most serious concerns with such engaging entertainment.
Claude Chabrol, the third Cahiers graduate on the program, is represented by a less characteristic work: ``The Eye of Vichy,'' a densely constructed documentary using newsreel footage and other archival sources to explore the collaboration between French officials and German occupiers during the dark days of the Nazi regime. Exploring the ways Nazi sympathizers used mass media to promulgate their ideologies, the movie casts a smart and skeptical eye on the negative capabilities of cinematic expression itself.
If there is a young filmmaker in the ``Cahiers'' series who best exemplifies the still-living legacy of the New Wave movement, it is Leos Carax, whose latest film has generated much heated discussion even before making its way into general American distribution.
``Les Amants de Pont-Neuf'' centers on two homeless people who develop a relationship at once hostile and romantic, undergo a series of arduous trials and mutual betrayals, and finally sail toward the sunset in a finale as touching as it is preposterous.
Carax's visual inventiveness seems almost limitless, especially in a bravura sequence that finds our destitute hero powerboating down the Seine while a spectacular fireworks show celebrates the French bicentennial all around him. Yet the storytelling style of this much-debated young filmmaker is so eclectic and unpredictable that even some admirers of flamboyantly artistic cinema find his work more studied than inspired.
My own view is very much in favor of Carax's nonstop inventiveness, even though I don't always like the results of his experiments. I'm delighted to see all three of his features on the ``Cahiers'' program - especially the explosive ``Bad Blood,'' one of the most provocative pictures to come from France during the past dozen years. Daring, difficult, and even daunting, it's exactly the sort of ruckus-raising work that Cahiers du cinema and the Film Society of Lincoln Center were born to champion.