IN 1966, IT was the movie that defined romance--lots of shots through rainy windshields, the smoke of the Gauloises wafting through the searching glances, the sentimental music of Francis Lai. Was love kinder then, or did it just seem that way, bittersweet but softly innocent?

It has been 16 years since Claude Lelouch directed "A Man and a Woman," and his images of a lyric love affair suspended his audiences between tears and sighs, buttressed their illusions. Now it seems, the world has grown more callous, the terrain that men and women share more treacherous. Claude Lelouch shrugs; it is not the way he sees it.

"People are perhaps embarrassed by romance now," he says, "but it hasn't changed. It is just that love is something that is very expensive; you have to expend a great deal of effort on it, as much as you would at work. Maybe it is just that these days, all the women seem the same, all the men seem the same, and all the love stories are the same. People don't look very hard for love. The great explorers are the ones that go very far away; in love we don't go very far anymore and so we can only encounter boredom."

He is a slight man, with dark, curly hair, quiet, intensely serious, passionate about his films. He was in town recently with his latest work, "Bolero." There was a benefit screening at the Kennedy Center and an elegant buffet at the French Embassy where Lelouch stood tensely as richly dressed women fluttered in the candlelight and surrounded him in smiles. In France, he is used to such homage; here his name is not so well known, none of his subsequent films having achieved the rave reviews and popularity of a"A Man and a Woman."

"Bolero" is a three-hour epic that covers three generations, four countries and World War II in a story that weaves the lives and loves of its characters together with music and dance. "It is a film about memory," he says through an interpreter. "About my memories, my parents' memories. All the stories in the film are true, they all happened to real people. But memory is a very strange thing, sometimes precise, sometimes bizarre. It is another world; it has nothing to do with reality."

It is, he says, a film about war as well. "To me, the worst thing in the world is war. After that, everything else, emotional problems, money problems, all the rest is easy." Lelouch was a young boy when the war began; his mother and he were destined for the concentration camps, and it was only her courage that saved them at the last minute, that sent her walking in the opposite direction away from the train they had been told to board. "My father's generation went to war singing," he says. "When we went to Algiers, we always shot our rifles in the air. We lost that war because we didn't want it. And the next generation hates war even more."

He is a relentlessly optimistic man, untouched by any sort of cynicism, preserving much the same vision that informs "A Man and a Woman"--that of the ordinary pleasures of daily life, the triumph of love over pain. "I have a lot of faith," he says. "I believe in reincarnation. The film is built on reincarnation. I believe that all men are created equal but go through different life styles in a number of different lifetimes."

There is proof of reincarnation, he says--people who pinch pennies are saving them for their next life, younger people are smarter than older people because they are ahead one life, the fact that Mozart played so brilliantly at the age of 5 proves that he had learned how to play in a previous lifetime. And so, he says, "Death is not an ending. It is not a frightening thing, but an amelioration. A getting better. From one life to another, we live the same stories, with a few improvements, like a new model of the same car, with a few more gadgets."

Lelouch was 28 when he wrote, directed and produced "A Man and a Woman," which won him an Academy Award as well as the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. "The problem treated in 'A Man and a Woman' was that of people who wanted to be happy. It was a film about optimism, about death and about going on. That is a problem that everyone in the world must face."

He has made dozens of movies since then, but most of them have not been seen here although they have earned him wealth and celebrity in his own country. "American culture gives too much importance to American culture," he says, when he is asked why this is. "It is also a French fault. France suffers from the problems of a poor country that wants to live like a rich country. Nowadays culture is a worldwide thing. There is no place for such nationalism."

His next film is going to be "an impossible love story, supermelodramatic. "It will be much ahead of its time or very much behind, but it will be absolutely not synchronized with its own time." Lelouch smiles; this does not bother him a bit.

The film will be about Edith Piaf. From the beginning, says Lelouch, she was an idol--"the most modern woman we've had in France. She understood everything about men and women; she invented women's liberation, and yet she could have felt at home in a harem. She was very curious, she took tremendous risks. She was constantly provoking death, she wanted to see how far things could go, to see what would happen when things exploded. She thought that 10 seconds of happiness were worth a life of tragedy."

He is fascinated as well by Piaf's attitude toward romance. "She was a woman who gave herself up for love. She suffered for love, love is the thing that made her suffer the most, she looked for this kind of love. All her love songs were tragic."

In an age of psychotherapy and best-selling books on the subject of how to fall out of love, does Claude Lelouch think that love is still capable of inspiring such suffering? "We used to have time," he says. "Love needs time. Things happen very quickly now. Love used to be easier. Now a woman is in competition with every other woman in the world; a man sees a beautiful woman on TV and he thinks, 'Why can't I have her?' You have to really work to keep someone."

He himself has had two wives, a child by each. "It's complicated," he says, "but it gives me terrific ideas for films. I have lived with someone since I was 16. For me, it isn't difficult. But I think the next world war will be between women and men."