A mlange of French movies heads to America

American audiences have flocked to French films since the early days of cinema, but the romance has cooled in recent years, as US theaters steer away from foreign fare. So it's cheering to find a veritable parade of French pictures lined up for American release.

One of the most impressive comes from Eric Rohmer, a founding member of France's revolutionary New Wave movement. Autumn Tale, the last of his "Tales of the Four Seasons," centers on a middle-aged widow and two friends who want to fix her up with a new man. Rohmer gives this story an autumnal mood, tinged with the melancholy of lives that won't see youth again.

Moviegoers looking for pure laughs may prefer The Dinner Game, by Francis Veber, whose French crowd-pleasers have sparked several Hollywood remakes.

It's hard to imagine how Hollywood could improve on this one, about a smug publisher who invites dull-witted people to dinner so he and his friend can mock them. All signs point to an agonizing evening for their latest prey, until the host runs into unexpected problems - and the designated idiot proves himself the nicest, worthiest person on the premises. France invented this sort of crackling farce, and the tradition stays alive and well in Veber's hands.

Late August, Early September sketches the lives of several Parisians juggling personal and professional challenges. It falls short of Olivier Assayas's most inventive work, but reconfirms his ability to ferret out hidden facets of the personalities he explores. Love, Etc. focuses on a love triangle involving two newlyweds and a best friend. Marion Vernoux's filmmaking is strongly influenced by the great Franois Truffaut, and there are far worse influences one could have.

Also coming are two not-quite-new imports. The Lovers on the Bridge, formerly called "The Lovers of Pont-Neuf," is an eye-dazzling and spirit-tingling epic by Leos Carax, who lavished enormous resources on a tale so ornery - the romance of two misfits who're often impossible to like - that some French audiences were scandalized. It's taken seven years to receive an American premire.

Finally, a sublime classic of French cinema, Jean Renoir's 1937 La Grande Illusion, has been restored to mint condition from an original negative. Its story of European prisoners in World War I is also the story of Western civilization passing fretfully into the 20th century. It should be seen at least once by absolutely everyone.

*Opening dates: 'Love, Etc.' and 'The Lovers on the Bridge,' July 2; 'Late August, Early September,' July 7; 'Autumn Tale' and 'The Dinner Game,' July 9; 'La Grande Illusion,' early August.

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