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Gallic Glories

That right now is roughly the 100th anniversary of the birth of the movies is a little-noted fact, even by the Hollywood studios. Maybe that's as it should be, as the original American film companies have long since gone under. Still, the American movies do feed off of a curious blend of forward-looking technology and storytelling conventions, and you'd think that somebody would take the pains to look backward. Of course, now that most other national cinemas are thoroughly routed and total world domination is nearly at hand, Hollywood might find today altogether too satisfying to bother much with the past.

The French film industry, however, is in no such position. So who can blame Gaumont, the world's oldest surviving movie studio, for wanting to celebrate its 100th anniversary? For that matter, who cannot help feeling grateful to them for opening their vaults, restoring their films and re-presenting them to the world?

The Gaumont retrospective begins today at the Museum of Fine Arts, and lasts through the end of next month. During that period, 23 films will be shown, ranging from the earliest Gallic productions at the end of the last century to movies made as recently as the last decade. It's an instructive (not to say it's not entertaining) retrospective. Leon Gaumont went into the filmmaking business in 1895, but only so that he would have a product to show potential buyers of his camera equipment. So little importance was initially placed on the film's content that Gaumont gave directorial duties to his secretary, Alice Guy -- provided that making pictures didn't interfere with her work around the office. Thus Guy became not only the first woman filmmaker, but one of the first filmmakers, period.

Fortunately, Guy showed an inherent grasp of storytelling, and helped give the new art sophistication. In 1905, she made an elaborate Life of Christ, and in 1907, On The Barricades, a short but engrossing melodrama about the Paris Commune. Her sober films were joined by the light and often truly bizarre offerings of Romeo Bosetti, whose shorts include a look at a policeman who can stretch his right arm from here to yonder, and one about a man who becomes magnetized and attracts metal everywhere he goes.

In the MFA series, these older films, which include 1929's unforgettable Passion of Joan of Arc by Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer, are all preceded by actualites, or newsreels that date back to the turn of the century. The prints, and in most cases the films themselves, are in amazingly good condition (Gaumont is apparently cleaning each print between each showing), so that the footage of, say, a turn-of-the-century Parisian flood is remarkably clear.

The 1930s are represented here by the brilliance of Jean Vigo. His masterpiece, L'Atlante, passed this way not long ago, but a chance to see his dreamy and wildly poetic short film, Zero for Conduct, is a rare treat indeed. Almost as interesting is its companion piece, Dainah la Metisse, notable for its surrealist-inspired costume- ball scene, and for the maturity with which it treats its black characters. It doesn't even bother to make them noble.

The '40s aren't represented in this sampling, and New Wavers of the '50s don't appear until a few of the later Jean-Luc Godard pieces, including Hail Mary, his mid-'80s take on the Virgin Mary, a film that suffered more from obscurity than blasphemy and which deserves a second look.

But though the New Wave is notable by its absence, we do have from the '50s Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped. Since Bresson's most celebrated title is Diary of a Country Priest, it's no surprise that this Nazi-prison-escape movie is in large part Christian allegory, a genre basically unknown to American film. In fact, while Hollywood's invocations of Christianity have largely been confined to The Bells of St. Mary's-style church trappings, French film has been much more likely to work religion from the inside, as a philosophical stance before the world.

The Gaumont series' later titles are not quite as enticing, with the possible exception of the Betty Blue director's cut. By the '70s and '80s, Gaumont had descended into the generally lamentable international co-production, which is represented here by Rainer Werner Fassbinder's lifeless Querelle. The purely French offerings, such as the mildly comic La Chevre, look like hackwork when compared with the works of Jean Vigo.

But I'm glad that the series reaches our own fin de siecle, and its own cinematic ennui. The level of French film artistry is undeniably down right now, and even the finest Gallic director currently working, Bertrand Tavernier (not represented here), couldn't get his most recent film, L-267, into general release in the U.S. Since Hollywood has become addicted to the money it makes off bad remakes of French films (from Cousins to Three Men and a Baby to Point of No Return), the studios now buy the rights to Gallic productions, then prevent them from screening in the States. Given that the French original would likely only gross in the hundreds of thousands, this can't be a business decision. More likely, it's an attempt to spare the American versions from being unkindly compared to the movies they're modeled on. I'd love to see La Totale, the film Arnold Schwarzenegger credits with inspiring True Lies, but unfortunately, seeing contemporary French film has become a privilege reserved for the few.

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