DEPENDING ON your age and moviegoing history, the ambitious revival series "Rediscovering French Film," at the American Film Institute Theater through Feb. 26, can serve as a fascinating introduction or savory memory album. The first part of a retrospective assembled by the Museum of Modern Art Film Library in cooperation with the French government, the series consists of 46 features released between 1930 and 1960. The emphasis, however, is on the '30s and '40s. Only four titles belong to the '50s.

The selections emphasize movies that either vanished from the foreign film reportory of American art-houses over the years or were neglected by importers to begin with. The local revival circuit rarely ventures beyond the indispensable but predictable classics: Jean Renoir's "La Grande Illusion," "The Rules of the Game" and "A Day in the Country"; Marcel Carne's "Children of Paradise"; Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" and "Orpheus"; Max Ophuls' "The Earrings of Madame de..." It's rather a novelty when someone takes a chance on Renoir's "Crime of Monsieur Lange" or Carne's "Port of Shadows" or Julien Duvivier's "Pepe le Moko."

The novel aspect of the selections is that they revive many of the unfamiliar credits of celebrated filmmakers and performers. Renoir, for example, is represented by a propaganda documentary, "La Vie est a nous," commissioned in 1936 by the French Communist Party when Renoir was a fervent supporter of the Popular Front. Carne is represented by films that show his characteristic style developing and then decaying. His first feature, the 1936 "Jenny," a lugubrious account of masochistic mother love, is saved from terminal bathos by a tangy Parisian underworld milieu and screenwriter Jacques Prevert's genius for sardonic dialogue. Sample exchange: "What does that woman do?" "What she did before, only a little more on the quiet."

Though the ingredients were a bit lumpy in "Jenny," the movie certainly anticipated the distinctive mood of world-weary, fatalistic, eating-your-heart-out romanticism that Carne and Prevert were destined to make famous in later collaborations like "Port of Shadows," "Daybreak" and "Children of Paradise." On the other hand, the second Carne feature in the series, his 1951 fiasco "Juliette ou la Clef des songes," illustrates what became of the great '30s style of French poetic realism after the inspiration flickered out.

Jean Gabin and Mireille Balin became an international sensation as the lovers in "Pepe le Moko." This series retrieves a follow-up vehicle, "Gueule d'Amour" directed in 1937 by Jean Gremillon, in which Gabin again fell fatally under the spell of Balin. A year later Michele Morgan achieved international stardom playing Gabin's tragic love interest in "Port of Shadows." At the AFI Theater you may scrutinize her film debut in 1937, at the age of 17, in Marc Allegret's "Gribouille," a starring vehicle for the great character actor Raimu, fresh from polishing off Marcel Pagnol's "Fanny" trilogy. At a somewhat later date, Simone Signoret can be discovered making an early, brazen impression as a scheming young hussy who plays milquetoast Bertrand Blier for a sucker in "Maneges," directed in 1950 by Yves Allegret and yet another prototype for last year's update on the femme fatale tradition, "Body Heat."

The selections also seem designed to rescue at least three notable directors -- Marcel L'Herbier, Gremillon and Jacques Becker -- from obscurity in this country. L'Herbier, a prestigious, pioneering silent filmmaker who went on to found the French national film school, IDHEC, in 1943, dominated the opening week of the series with four titles. The only one I saw, the breezy, inventive Art Deco mystery comedy, "Le Parfum de la dame en noir," shot in 1931, revealed a prodigiously playful talent, well worth rediscovering.

Gremillon is represented by four titles yet to be shown -- "Gueule d'amour," "Lumiere d'ete," "Le Ciel est a vous" and "Pattes blanches." The middle two were the most respected French films made during the German occupation, and "Le Ciel," a gracefully visualized, stirring account of a likable, resourceful, contented couple whose marriage is curiously transformed and exalted by a mutual passion for aviation, justified its reputation. "Lumiere d'ete," written by Prevert just before he rejoined Carne for "Children of Paradise," sounds intriguing -- a tangled romantic melodrama set among contemporary decadents -- but it's also being shown without English titles.

Becker, who was Renoir's assistant during the '30s, is fairly well known here for the Simone Signoret film "Casque d'or." This series restores two of the earlier credits that helped make his reputation -- "Goupi Mains-Rouges," a corrosive wartime comedy about a greedy peasant clan, roughly comparable to the Jeeter Lester family in our "Tobacco Road," and "Les Rendez-vous de juillet," a postwar comedy about bohemian middle-class youth that was regarded as a remarkably authentic and sympathetic social document at the time. Becker's last feature, the riveting prison escape melodrama "Le trou," compares favorably with classics like "The Wages of Fear," "A Man Escaped" and "Kanal" as an exercise in suspense, at once physically excruciating and psychologically perceptive. Released in 1960, "Le trou" is the most recent film in the series.

Inevitably, some of the movies are going to reveal defects and signs of aging that make even doting antiquarians wince. For example, it seemed to take Pagnol about three ponderous lifetimes to resolve the cut-and-dried plot of "Angele," a bucolic romance of 1936 in which the ultimate happy resolution is never in the slightest doubt. The concluding 70 minutes or so grind you down with delaying actions. Henri Jeanson's sprightly romantic comedy script for "Entree des artistes," a triangle involving young acting students in a conservatory class, circa 1938, takes an arbitrary, ruinous turn for murder melodrama in the last reel, inviting general head-scratching. The never-never Land of Oblivion entered by Gerard Philipe as the fantasizing hero of Carne's "Juliette" is such a sappy realm of masochistic yearning that admirers of the great Carne films may be obliged to endure this obscure relic through clenched teeth and crossed peepers. It's not only contemporary film-makers who are prone to catastrophic misjudgment.

When all other resources fail, the actors remain enthralling. Since most of the great stars and character actors who adorn this series have retired or gone to their reward, "Rediscovering French Film" offers a unique opportunity to enjoy their work and recapture wonderful slices of theatrical history. Arranged more or less chronologically, the series is now approaching the late '30s, and this bloc includes two pictures, Marc Allegret's "Entree des artistes" and Julien Duvivier's "La Fin du jour," which make entertaining use of the acting profession itself. The latter, set in a private retirement home for actors, contrasts the obsessive vanities of aging actors played by Jouvet, Michel Simon and Victor Francen -- respectively, a self-centered matinee idol, a foolish nonentity and a gravely dignified classical actor embittered by the lack of popular acclaim. Duvivier and writer Charles Spaak have supplied this powerful trio with some irresistible hokum -- Jouvet losing his mind; Simon freezing up after going to desperate lengths to appear on stage just once in a leading role; Francen choking on the prepared text and ad-libbing a touching eulogy for a bad actor -- "You remained faithful to your youthful dream, and one never touches on things that are great without becoming greater oneself."

One of the jolliest rediscoveries is the 1938 operetta film "Trois Valses," a delightful movie adaptation of an early theatrical hit for the husband-and-wife team of Pierre Fresnay and Yvonne Printemps, whose popularity on the Parisian stage paralleled Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne's on Broadway. Scored by Oscar Straus with melodies borrowed from the two Johann Strausses, "Trois Valses" is a delightful romantic farce about love affairs that recur over three generations. The stars first enact an unfulfilled romance between a ballerina and a cavalry officer in 1867. The offspring of these two, an operetta star and a stuffy aristocrat, also fail to sustain an infatuation in 1900. Finally, the offspring of those two, a movie star and an accountant, hit it off decisively in 1938.

Of all those French leading ladies who affected melodious stage names -- Vivianne Romance (a swell slutty troublemaker in Duvivier's endearing populist fable "La Belle Equipe," in which she tried to alienate pals Jean Gabin and Charles Vanel), Odette Joyeux (a spoiled-brat troublemaker in "Entree des artistes," in which she tried to split Claude Dauphin and Janine Darcy), Dita Parlo, Suzy Delair, etc., etc. -- Yvonne Printemps is the most amusing rediscovery. Her twinkly-eyed, puckery-lipped, trilling vivacity is outrageously entertaining.

Before becoming a successful married team, Printemps and Fresnay had indulged in a notorious affair behind the back of her husband, the illustrious theatrical star Sacha Guitry, who dominated sophisticated theatrical comedy for 25 years or so, contriving scores of popular vehicles for himself. An imposing epigrammatic dandy, Guitry successfully adapted his playful, urbane style to the movies in the '30s. This series includes one of his most elaborate inventions, the shaggy dog historical travesty "The Pearls of the Crown," in which he purports to trace the origins and ultimate disposition of seven pearls once embedded in the crown worn by the king of England.

Guitry himself plays four roles, including Francis I and Napoleon III. The young actress who succeeded Printemps in his esteem -- Jacqueline Delubac, the fourth of five leading ladies who also became Madame Guitry -- contributes witty impersonations of Mary Stuart, Josephine de Beauharnais and a statue of the Virgin Mary. Her self-pitying Mary Stuart is a particular deadpan triumph, luxuriating in laments like "Oh, Lord, I am a widow... and an orphan... and I'm not even 20..." A huge cast flits in and out of this capricious, international comic spectacle. The bit players include Jean-Louis Barrault and Arletty, later to become the immortal co-stars of "Children of Paradise." Barrault plays Bonaparte to Delubac's Josephine, while Arletty arguably transcends outrageousness as a mind-boggling queen of Ethiopia, blacked-up and adorned with a towering kinky hairdo that seems to anticipate the Coneheads.

The series also revives two of the films Cocteau adapted from his stage hits -- "The Eagle With Two Heads" and "Les Parents Terribles," shot back-to-back in the late '40s and intended to preserve performances he cherished. "Eagle" must still seem like delirious romantic nonsense, but as the glamorously implausible star-crossed lovers -- a queen who's been in mourning for 10 years and a young adventurer who resembles her dear departed -- Edwige Feuillere and Jean Marais remain a dazzling set of narcissistic mismates. In addition, the whole woozy, kitschy atmosphere brings to mind the Tennessee Williams approach to romantic tragedy in modern-dress nonsense like "Sweet Bird of Youth."

It ought to be a different story with "Les Parents Terribles," which was considered a remarkable transposition from stage to screen when originally released. Instead of "opening up" the play, an account of a fiercely jealous mother's reaction to her son's engagement, Cocteau shot it for enhanced claustrophobic intensity.Confined within two ingeniously contrasted apartments -- one a cluttered, suffocating maternal nest and the other a spacious, restful sanctuary belonging to the fiancee -- the action generated an uncanny illusion of domestic intimacy. Cocteau felt that his four principal players -- a rather overage Jean Marais as the son (he had originated the role 10 years earlier), Yvonne de Bray and Marcel Andre as his parents and Gabrielle Dorziat as his sympathetic aunt -- became such a tightly knit ensemble that they were family.

I hadn't seen a more gripping domestic drama before the film version of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" appeared in the early '60s, and it showed the influence of "Les Parents Terribles." Perhaps the most obvious "quote" was the slow pull-back shot at the end, which ultimately reduced the Tyrone living room to a distant point of light. There's a special legend associated with Cocteau's pull-back shot, recalled by Marais for biographer Francis Steegmuller: "The camera, which had been in for a close-up, moves away, further and further away on its dolly, gradually taking in the entire room, the entire apartment... With this scene, the words 'The End' were to appear on the screen. The next day, during the rushes, we saw that the dolly tracks had not been firmly fastened to the floor; the image was shaky from the moment the dolly shot started. We all -- producers, cameramen, actors -- looked at each other in dismay: we were going to have to remake the scene.

"'No,' said Cocteau. 'We will not do it over. I'll add a few words. I'll say, "And the gypsy caravan continued on its way."' And actually the shaking did give the impression that the entire scene was taking place inside a wagon jogging along a rough country road. Anyone else would have done it over. Cocteau transformed the technical accident... For me, that is genius."