Hollywood may be floundering in its search for popular new themes and workable new trends, but this year's Sarasota (Fla.) French Film Festival showed that French cinema has a clear idea of where its immediate future lies.
While raucous comedies, atmospheric dramas, and muted character studies are as common as ever in French film production, attention is focusing on a freshly minted wave of dark urban melodramas.
Known as ''banlieu'' movies, after the crime-ridden housing projects where they take place, they're generating praise and controversy with their no-holds-barred portraits of personal anxiety and social dysfunction in neighborhoods that were designed to preclude such problems.
For French audiences who thought movies like ''Do the Right Thing'' and ''Boyz N the Hood'' could only be made on the other side of the Atlantic, new pictures with titles like ''Hate'' and ''State of Things'' are at once a rude awakening and an inevitable reflection of increasingly urgent realities.
The films are also drawing keen interest from distributors who bring French productions to American screens.
''Hate'' will arrive Jan. 26, propelled by great success in film festivals - it won the best-director award at Cannes and then played the highly selective New York filmfest - and also by the prominence of director Matthieu Kassovitz, whose earlier ''Cafe au Lait'' was well received by American audiences. ''State of Things'' was one of the most hotly discussed pictures at Sarasota, earning applause for its unflinching realism, and criticism for its abrupt editing and abrasive tone.
French farce present too
Not that ''banlieu'' blues were the only dominant force at the Sarasota festival, which draws critics from across the United States as well as crowds of Floridians whose enthusiasm proves there's nothing elitist or esoteric about a taste for European movies.
Comedy also had a prominent place on the program, which started with a tribute to Jacques Tati, creator of the internationally loved Mr. Hulot character and a central pillar of France's long tradition of farce and funniness. Unfortunately, some of the most eagerly touted comedies in subsequent days fell far short of Tati's high standard.
One such was ''French Twist,'' a frenetic love-triangle farce with writer-director Josiane Belasko playing a gay woman who disrupts a middle-class marriage. Due on screens in the US early next year, it has already been announced as France's contender for the upcoming Academy Award race.
Another was ''Guardian Angels,'' a huge hit in France but unlikely to score with Americans despite its intricate plot - about a con operator, a priest, and an adopted child - and its explosive performances by Gerard Depardieu and Christian Clavier, who bombard the camera with Jim Carrey-style energy.
Likable ordinary stories
I found much more to enjoy in ''The Juliet Year,'' starring Fabrice Luchini as a man who invents a nonexistent girlfriend to stave off marriage with an overeager lover, and ''Au Petit Marguery,'' which evoked memories of ''Babette's Feast.'' The latter contains a fine performance by Stephane Audran as proprietor of a family restaurant closing its doors after long service to an appreciative community.
I also liked ''The Girl Alone,'' director Benoit Jacquot's finely wrought study of a mostly uneventful day in the life of an ordinary young woman. Recalling the Italian neorealist tradition, it's another strong contender for American release.
Less exportable is ''Le Journal d'un Seducteur,'' which loses its interesting family themes in an unfocused story. The film is only partially redeemed by the great Jean-Pierre Leaud as an amusingly eccentric playwright.
Other movies on view included ''Elisa,'' starring French pop star Vanessa Paradis as a teenager bent on revenge against her father (the ubiquitous Depardieu again) for deserting her, and ''To Life, to Death,'' set in the working-class city of Marseille and further crystallizing the festival's concern with marginalized people who have difficulty keeping their day-to-day lives together.
Greeted warmly by their Florida audience, these tales of family hardship demonstrated the international nature of social problems often thought to be more local and particular than they really are. By making this point both forcefully and diplomatically, the Sarasota festival - presided over by Molly Haskell, the respected American critic and scholar - served a purpose that resonates far beyond the movie world itself.