"French Provincial," now at the Inner Circle, offers an iffy introduction to a young French director named Andre Techine, who may or may not have a romantic sensibility worth cultivating. This fitfully amusing but fundamentally disbeveled pastiche of vintage "women's pictures" and family sagas, with Teanne moreau as its unselfish heroine, was originally titled "Souvenirs d'en France."
It begins in 1935, reverses abruptly for an expendable flashback set at the turn of the century, then pounds capriciously forward again, transforming the late '30s, the war years and the post-war generation into a blurry, elusive backdrop for the family history in the foreground, which isn't exactly a model of clarity either.
As the continuity breaks down, the movie degenerates into both a chronological and a dramatic muddle, compelling one either to tolerate it for random, incidental pleasures or to throw in the towel.
Techine and his screenwriting collaborator, Marilyn Goldin, an American who has worked as a freelance critic, a researcher at the Museum of Modern Art Film Library and a production assistant to Bernardo Berotlucci, seem to think of movies in terms of moments and rhetorical flourishes rather than sustained stories, themes or even moods. Their wildest presumption may have been attempting a traditional chronicle format in the first place.
Techine and Goldin are obviously happier and more effective trying to invent Magic Little Moments, some fresh and others derivative, adapted with varying degrees of charm from favorite images or scenes in older movies. An early sequence set at a movie theater playing "Camille" may be used to illustrate the team's odd combination of evocative, romantic humor with bewildering absentmindedness.
The townspeople stream out of the aucitorium wiping their eyes and choking back sobs. There is one exception: The funny, enticing Marie France Pister, who played the fickle wife in "Cousin, Cousine," as Regina, the troublemaker of the story, the selfish, thoughtless bride of the youngest son of the town's leading industrialist, a foundry owner named Pedret. Tickled at everyone else's susceptibility, she mocks tham all the way home with shrill, incessant laughter, then pauses on the steps to decline melodramatically to the elements, a half-joking gesture that inspired her husband to make love to her on the spot, not to mention in the rain.
It remains to be seen if Techine and Goldin can integrate their movie memories and reveries. If not, they are likely to evolve in the wrong direction and become typed as a kind of Franco-American Peter Bogdanovich.