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Cannes audiences can be unruly as they wait to enter a major screening, but the closest thing to a riot I encountered this year didn't happen before a big Hollywood picture. Surprisingly, the most violent struggle took place as viewers pushed and elbowed their way into the first showing of "Eloge de l'amour," the brilliant new feature by French auteur Jean-Luc Godard.

This scene isn't likely to be repeated when Godard's film comes to American screens, since it's a dense and challenging work by a dense and challenging artist. But its wildly enthusiastic reception here should ensure its arrival in art-minded US theaters. Godard was once a favorite of foreign-film fans, and is still hugely respected by viewers who share his idea that movies should inspire thought and reflection instead of relying on familiar formulas and easy emotions.

The first portion of Eloge de l'amour, which means "ode to love," is shot in elegant black and white. It focuses on a character named Edgar who wants to make a movie - or perhaps a play or an opera - about the different stages of love, from infatuation and passion to disagreement and reconciliation. The second portion of the film, shot in exquisitely colored digital-video images, deals with Edgar's earlier effort to make a movie about romance between a real-life French couple during the Nazi occupation of France in the World War II era.

On one level, all of "Eloge de l'amour" can be seen as an extremely skeptical response to Steven Spielberg's enormously popular Holocaust movie, "Schindler's List," conveying Godard's insistence that some historical evils are too huge and horrific to be conveyed through popular culture. He confirmed this at a press conference, when he criticized a Spielberg scene in which an apparent death-camp gas chamber turns out to be an innocent shower room. Such material is more about superficial entertainment than historical or humanistic truth, Godard implied.

Godard began his career in the '50s as a member of French film's New Wave movement, which revolutionized world cinema by combining realistic acting and photography with poetic style and an emphasis on a director's personal vision. One of his colleagues in this movement was Jacques Rivette, who has also explored idiosyncratic interests throughout his career.

Rivette returned to Cannes this year with Va savoir!, or "Who Knows," a comedy-drama about an actress, a theater troupe, intrigue between two couples, and mysteries surrounding a missing manuscript and a stolen ring.

Like many of Rivette's movies, it combines an unpredictable story with moments of deliberate artificiality that call into question the entire relationship between life and movies. And it does all this while developing a series of fascinating characters whose adventures lead to one of the most sublimely touching finales the screen has given us in years.

Rivette and Godard are two of film's old masters, but they've never seemed more young, fresh, and original than they do at the start of cinema's second century.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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