- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Judging from five of the seven movies scheduled for this weekend’s “New From France” series, it would appear that the older the material, the better the picture. The pick of the quintet, part of the American Film Institute’s salute to French movies, is a new version of the vintage Gaston Leroux detective novel “The Mystery of the Yellow Room,” originally published in 1907 and first filmed during the silent period. The director and screenwriter, Bruno Podalydes, has cast his brother Denis Podalydes in the leading role, as an awesomely resourceful newspaper sleuth named Joseph Rouletabille, who traces an attempted assault in the French countryside to its origins in a thwarted romance years earlier in the United States.

Part of the fun of the movie may be suggested by the reaction of the presiding magistrate after Rouletabille accounts for all the dangling threads of the plot. The judge, played by Claude Rich, is impressed but also feels “a bit of a letdown.” Anyone in authority would be less than jubilant about such a smarty-pants one-man show, predicated on free-lance, globe-trotting feats of investigation and deduction.

Even the movie audience must await Rouletabille’s return, along with the fictional interested parties who reconvene near the scene of the unsolved crime for a masterful summing-up. A whole expedition has taken place off-screen. Nevertheless, the effrontery of it all is whimsically entertaining.

The acting Mr. Podalydes proves a virtuoso at overconfidence and glib explanations. The directing Mr. Podalydes excels at playful depiction and distraction from the outset, drawing our attention to three inventions that evoke the period and anticipate the principal setting, the rambling estate of a master inventor named Stangerson (Michael Lonsdale). A Rube Goldberg machine with counterweights and a descending ball gives way to a model train racing across the Stangerson grounds and then a pioneering solar automobile, so dependent on direct sunlight that it stalls whenever a cloud passes over the sun.

A cloudless example of ensemble crime fiction, “Yellow Room” boasts a much sounder script than a trio of contemporary crime sagas included in the series. Back-to-back psychopaths make “Variete Francaise” and “Roberto Succo” perilous treading for anyone attracted to this weekend’s fare.

The former revolves around a thin-faced prodigal named Eric who seems to be returning from jail or perhaps mental confinement in order to be wed but discovers that his deranged father may have done away with Mom and a less fortunate son. Nothing is ever adequately explained. Fittingly, perhaps, a number of scenes are staged in total darkness.

Not a name to cherish, Roberto Succo is revealed to be a serial killer of Italian origin who terrorizes the French by stealing cars, assaulting women and sometimes killing his victims. Nevertheless, he seems to exert a hypnotic cobra-guy effect on women in carjacking episodes. It takes several lifetimes, by my watch, to alarm a high school girl who becomes Succo’s steady. She ignores the frequency with which he appears in different cars, not to mention the grisly confession about how he butchered his parents. I began to sense something culturally significant in her refusal to think ill of the monster. Almost akin to French solicitude for Saddam Hussein.

“Pas de Scandale,” which declines to explain the business scandal that lurks in the background of an idling plot, accentuates one’s concern about eligible young Frenchwomen.

Isabelle Huppert, the star of the film, remains regally above the fray as the estranged wife of a demoralized corporate executive just out of prison on a charge of financial malfeasance. However, a young hairdresser becomes an object of obsession for the ruined man, and you can never be sure if that’s a hopeful or pathetic development. Not in a script where all hope of crystallization is in vain.

An almost criminal negligence weakens a potential heartwarmer titled “The Butterfly,” in which Michel Serrault plays a widowed lepidopterist with a lonely, inquisitive little girl on his hands during a rural excursion. Writer-director Philippe Muyl needs to learn the blessings of common sense. The juvenile heroine, embodied by a wistful, freckled 8-year-old named Claire Bouanich, is supposed to be Mr. Serrault’s neighbor, left to her own devices by an absent-minded single mother. Insincerely, the movie suggests that the impromptu guardian will be mistaken for an abductor and that all efforts to contact the mother would be futile. None of this manipulation exhibits the slightest hint of urgency or credibility.

“New From France” suffers from chronic writing breakdowns. From the look of things, crime stories in particular should not be trusted unless they date back to Gaston Leroux.

SERIES: “New From France”

WHERE: American Film Institute National Theater at Kennedy Center and Silver Theatre in Silver Spring

WHEN: Today through Sunday

TICKETS: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over).

PHONE: 202/785-4600 at Kennedy Center; 301/495-6720 in Silver Spring.

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