Director Jean-Luc Godard, the phoenix of the avant-garde cinema, returns to Washington's screens today with "First Name: Carmen," playing for three days at the Biograph. In interviews, Godard has called himself "an American filmmaker in exile," and the movie marries American movie oomph with weighty French philosophical concerns. It's his best, most accessible movie in years.

"First Name: Carmen" is based on the popular opera, but it doesn't follow Bizet so much as launch off him -- it's like a Peter Sellars fantasia on "Carmen." Carmen (the Dutch discovery Maruschka Detmers) is a vamp who consumes men like a furnace -- "If I love you," she says, "that's the end of you." Her cohort is a band of college-educated terrorists; her business, robbing banks. In one heist, she shoots it out with a bank guard, Joseph (Jacques Bonnaffe), then collapses to the marble floor in his embrace. Joseph becomes her lover and her victim, the lab rat in her life's project, "to show people what a woman does to a man."

Sexual conflict is a constant in Godard's work, and nowhere else has it been shown with all its horrible beauty -- "First Name: Carmen" is an "Apocalypse Now" for the war of the sexes. In Detmers, Godard has found the perfect object for his obsession, a woman with full, sensuous lips and eyes that sparkle treacherously beneath her Medusa mop. Parading around her apartment in the altogether, Detmers has the lubricious sexuality of a porpoise. Godard makes his Carmen a force of nature, analogizing her to the shots of the tides that punctuate the film, but because of Detmers, it never seems forced. She's more than beautiful -- she's a phenomenon who can support all the symbolic weight Godard attaches to her.

Godard plays the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, Carmen's hypochondriacal uncle, who has been recruited to make a movie as a cover for their kidnaping of a rich businessman. Bundled up with a boom box and a copy of Variety, his tufts of black hair erupting like the stuffing of a battered armchair, Godard floats among the terrorists looking wasted and befuddled. He's Robespierre, alienated by the forces he set in motion.

Carmen's terrorism isn't grounded in any political reality -- Godard's detached, clinical camera, framing the gang from afar, robs their sorties of any drama. They look like the Keystone Kops. People in the background simply ignore them, scanning the newspapers unperturbed while the gunplay proceeds. The action is so distant from real life, the police only bother to show up in the terrorists' own dreams.

Godard's style is deliberately disjointed and dialectical; there may be connections here, but it's up to the audience to make them. Sound and image are sundered: we see two people arguing, but hear the crashing of waves, and vice versa; natural conversation is overlaid with war sounds and childish piano playing. We hear string quartet music before we see the players; and the music is not Bizet's opera, but the strains of Beethoven's presciently modernist late quartets.

Politics and erotics, Godard seems to say, are the relentless, recurrent tides of a corrupt world. No longer the engage' artist, he has solved his life, at least for now, with an ethic of skepticism and withdrawal. Uncle Godard's speech is a patter of Zen wisecracks and gnomic utterances: When his niece asks him whether he wants to go back to making movies, Godard replies, "We should close our eyes, not open them."

Some have remarked on the film's "erotic feverishness," but that's only true in the sense that fever is a symptom of disease. "First Name: Carmen" is a profoundly antierotic movie, founded on a fundamentally religious avulsion from a woefully inadequate world. All that's left is the muted hope of esthetic salvation. "You have to look," Uncle Godard insists plaintively. "Van Gogh looked for some yellow in the sunset." Godard has dedicated "First Name: Carmen" "In memoriam small films," but his ambition here is staggering, his moral seriousness an inspiration.

First Name: Carmen, opening today at the Biograph, is rated R and contains considerable nudity, sexual situations, violence and profanity.