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Breaking the Waves

Despite the shiver it still sends down the spines of many a film purist, each new month brings additional proof that home video has taken the place once held by the art house and the revival theater, preserving the films of the past and promoting the obscure and uncelebrated films of the present. As popularized film culture (in such guises as the recent American Film Institute list) narrows itself to fit the limitations of Blockbuster Video and Planet Hollywood, the real, living, breathing face of contemporary cinema struggles to find an audience.

Consider, for example, recent discussion of a new French New Wave, celebrated in the pages of the New York Times and elsewhere. Some critics have even suggested that there are as many as three waves in France, the first led by the stylistic variations of Leos Carax and Olivier Assayas, the second a cinema of ideas in the tradition of Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache, and the third a dark, nihilistic school staring straight at the desperate lives of the young and the poor. For interested U.S. viewers, the only common point is that all three have, with few exceptions (Mathieu Kassovitz's Hate and Assayas' brilliant Irma Vep among them), been ignored by specialty distributors such as Miramax, who prefer their art-house fare to be exotic, period-piece prestigious and, whenever possible, in English. Those interested in contemporary trends like the above will have to search it out as it slips into the video market, one or two films at a time.

Benoit Jacquot's 1990 The Disenchanted (First Run Features, Feb. 9, rental only) is perhaps typical of the romantic, Rohmeresque cinema of young faces and abstract ideas. The heroine, Beth (played by the enchanting Judith Godreche), is a young girl with a fondness for Rimbaud and an increasing numbness to the emotional demands of the world. Her boyfriend, disliked by all of her acquaintances and left nameless by the filmmaker, challenges her to prove her love by going to bed with the ugliest man she can find. She drops the boyfriend but accepts his challenge, flirting first with a gawky young boy, then a thoughtful 40-year-old writer, and finally, with her mother's approval, with "Sugardad," an older man who has made no secret of his interest in her. Though it sounds like farce, The Disenchanted is more existential than comical, and Beth's restless ambivalence to life takes on an almost tragic weight as the film progresses. Contact First Run at 212-243-0600 or www.firstrunfeatures.com.

By comparison, Manuel Pradal's debut film, Marie Baie des Anges (Columbia TriStar, rental only), is more consciously stylish but also more stultifyingly superficial. The tale of two youths on the Riviera, one a young man drawn to petty crime, the other a very young girl who teasingly accepts the company of the local American sailors, rambles unconvincingly to a tragic conclusion as contrived as it is predictable. The young performers are appealing up to a point, but their pouty angst, like their director's trendy nihilism, is about as profound as a Calvin Klein commercial.

BACK PROJECTION: If new French films are becoming increasingly exotic to American viewers, the new Iranian cinema, only beginning to receive notice, is truly uncharted territory; a film like Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Once Upon a Time, Cinema, one of six new Iranian releases from Facets Video, intrigues and teases as much as it enlightens. Part cinephilic reverie, part Arabian Nights fantasy, Makhmalbaf's film is about a Chaplinesque projectionist who introduces motion pictures to the Persian court, only to have the shah fall helplessly in love with the onscreen heroine. Though most of the film is genuinely witty and charming, a perfect companion piece to earlier film-vs.-reality games such as The Icicle Thief, the references to Iranian films of the past (mostly very broad comedies) are obviously lost on most Western viewers, and by the time Makhmalbaf conjured up the spirit of what appeared to be a fairly recent action thriller, I was hopelessly confused. Nonetheless, Once Upon a Time, Cinema is a fascinating peek at a truly unknown cinema history, a hint of new discoveries to come. Other Iranian titles just released by Facets are Nargess, The Last Act, Zinat, Travellers and The Legend of a Sigh. Contact Facets at 800-331-6197 or www.facets.org.

ON THE FRITZ: Two of the three new titles in Kino's long and invaluable series of vintage film noirs (or should it be films noir?), Jules Dassin's prison drama Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948), are already established entries in the noir canon (though I for one find the self-congratulating faux- documentary style and the glimpses of proletarian color of the latter film tiresome). The third, Fritz Lang's 1953 The Blue Gardenia, is less familiar, and probably with good reason. The story may be noir material (Anne Baxter, having just been dumped by mail by her boyfriend in Korea, spends a drunken night on the town with the wolfish and soon-to-be-dead Raymond Burr, then becomes convinced that she murdered him), but Lang's handling is perversely and uncharacteristically light in tone, lacking the intensity of The Big Heat or the poetry of his films with Edward G. Robinson in the '40s. What's most interesting about The Blue Gardenia's sunny disposition is the way the film treats the noir paranoia as just another new frill on the postwar cultural landscape, along with exotic cocktails, long-playing records, Mickey Spillane novels and the atomic bomb.

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