THE COMPETITION -- Avalon 1.

The Hollywood holiday blitz is one of the more recent Christmas traditions. This year the celluloid studios sent us an even dozen -- the Twelve Flicks of Christmas, you might say -- but two of them arrived (as some Christmas card do) just too late to respond to.

"How did we get into this century?" the heroine of "The Competiton" asks the hero. Both are classical pianists whose passion for music is at least as great as the one they develop for each other.

How? Easy. The film is an intensely modern one, dealing intelligently with the difficulties of balancing two sets of professional and personal needs when nobody is willing to play the subordinate, supportive part of a partnership. Only those who get all their ideas about the desires of the young from the movies, where sex generally conquers all, would think this old-fashioned.

As there are a dozen semifinalists of the contest depicted in the film, some tough-talking, others slick or steely, but all anxious to succeed as concert musicians, it's a given that dedication to a fine art is not an aberration. And while setting the story in a piano competition heightens the dramatic conflict and widens the viewer's horizon, the Career-Couple Conflict is a common problem of our time. And the solution is yet to come. "It will be a century before the man you want is produced -- so in the meantime get out and dance with what there is," the heroine is advised.

Amy Irving and Richard Dreyfuss play the young couple who are able to reach agreement on a dual career -- four hands on the keyboard while they dream of sharing tours and contracts -- without realizing the hidden presumption that it's the man's career that will be ever so slightly more important and successful.

Winning as these young actors can be, they are easily outclassed by two mature ones. Lee Remick, as the girl's teacher, a world-famous pianist, is madly charismatic as she cynically but cheerfully explains how to come to terms with the world as it is, in both music and romance. And Sam Wanamaker, as a sort of cross between Leonard Bernstein, and Johnny Carson, steals one of Dreyfuss' crucical scenes just by the way he stands and watches his orchestra being conducted by that young hothead.

The film is full of delicious touches, such as the automatic way that one of the competitors, a brash kid with a widly loyal family, sits with them in the audience and shoots out both hands to stop them from clapping when they think a pice is over, three notes before its acutal ending. You know how many times they must have clapped between movements, and how the boy has nevertheless learned to accept their untutored enthusiasm for what he understands and they never will.

"The Competition," produced by William Sackheim and directed by Joel Oliansky, who wrote the story together, has advanced the art of the art film (the film about an art, as opposed to the artsy film, usually about nothing or nothingness) on two counts.

First, the art is actually shown, or heard. In the camera trained instead on the faces of key people in the crowds or lost among the blinding stage lights. The concerti played by the six finalists are heard at length -- not the complete length, but enough to give you an idea of how and why they love music. After all, you have to witness explicit sex scenes to believe that movie characters love each other, don't you?

The second thing is that it actually looks as if the characters are playing the music.In the old music films -- they couldn't all have been biographies of Chopin, but surely most of them were -- you saw the musician's sweating face and flopping hair, and you saw his flying fingers on the keyboard, but you never saw both at the same time. Well, here you do. Six real pianists do the acutal playing, but Jean Evanson Shaw coached the actors into a pretty good semblance of silent playing, and you have to be awfully quick to realize when you occasionally hear a note you didn't see hit.