Museum of Modern Art Hosts Atmospheric French Films

Focus on physical settings unifies 14 portraits of France

Just a century ago, two brothers named Louis and Auguste Lumiere inaugurated the art of film in a Paris cafe, presenting the first motion-picture show before a paying audience.

While the technology involved was itself a major part of the attraction, early moviegoers were also thrilled by the images on the screen an ocean view, proud parents feeding their baby, a train pulling into a station. Far from protesting the everyday nature of these scenes, spectators reveled in cinema's ability to reproduce the ordinary as well as the novel, bringing familiar subjects to life as readily as the magic-lantern shows and newspaper engravings that had already gained loyal followings.

Cinema has traveled many roads since then, but audiences have never tired of seeing their own backyards authentically depicted on the screen. Celebrating this long tradition, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has organized a wide-ranging exhibition of French movies called ''France Vue par....'' It is made up of 14 feature films showing ''France as Seen by'' a diversified list of motion-picture artists. In addition to the generally high quality of its programming, the series is important for the attention it brings to national portraiture as a central yet often-overlooked aspect of our cinematic heritage.

The exhibition opened with its most newsworthy item: the New York premiere of ''There Were Days ... and Moons,'' a 1990 film by Claude Lelouch, whose international hit ''A Man and a Woman'' helped assure French cinema a solid berth in American theaters during the 1960s era. Lelouch has never lost his affection for bittersweet tales about attractive people doing romantic things in picturesque locations, all accompanied by music that's as aggressive as it is atmospheric.

''There Were Days ... and Moons'' tells a number of loosely intertwined stories linked by characters thrown off their prearranged schedules because they forgot to adjust their watches when daylight-savings time went into effect. Lending specifically French moods to this widely relevant scenario is its setting in the Normandy region, with town and country areas competing for the camera's attention. Much of the film's narrative is sketchy and uninvolving, but Lelouch's loving regard for its background results in a fetching visual experience.

Other items on the ''France Vue par...'' menu range from an installment of ''Fantomas,'' a surrealistic serial directed by Louis Feuillade in 1913, to the streetwise ''L.627,'' an acerbic look at urban crime directed by Bertrand Tavernier just three years ago.

Styles and subjects represented on the program are as varied as the periods of French cinema that produced them. Fantasy makes a friendly appearance in ''The Crazy Ray,'' by Rene Clair, a 1923 classic about a mad scientist who puts all of Paris to sleep. Poetic realism lends resonance to ''Le Jour se Leve,'' by Marcel Carne, about a trapped man remembering events that led him to murder. Contemporary comedy sparks ''We Won't Grow Old Together,'' by Maurice Pialat, an amusing study of feuding friends.

And naturally, the New Wave movement, which gave a burst of fresh ideas to French film beginning in the late 1950s, has a place of honor. Francois Truffaut's perky ''The Man Who Loved Women'' tells of a bookish fellow infatuated with romance, and Eric Rohmer's less successful ''Full Moon in Paris'' looks at an attractive woman's relationships with a trio of men.

Among the most provocative offerings is Jean-Luc Godard's celebrated ''Alpha ville,'' which combines the darkness of ''film noir'' with the inventiveness of science fiction. Although the plot focuses on an intergalactic hero battling a tyrannical computer, Godard filmed its futuristic images in the streets and buildings of Paris in the mid-'60s, defamiliarizing these through the wizardry of his virtuosic camera work.

What unifies this multifaceted program is its interest not only in the stories of its films, but also in the physical settings where they take place and in the social, cultural, and political forces that give each setting a distinctive look and feel.

Borrowing its name from ''Paris Vue par...,'' a 1965 anthology film set in the French capital, ''France Vue par...'' is a valuable reminder of the geographical, architectural, and sociological riches that have been among cinema's most valuable assets since its earliest days.

* The films in ''France Vue par...'' were selected by Jean-Michel Frodon of the French newspaper Le Monde, where he is chief film critic. Laurence Kardish, curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art, coordinated the exhibition. It continues through May 16.

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