September 18, 1989 12:00 PM

Charlotte Gainsbourg, Nathalie Cardone

Engaging despite its total lack of spectacle, this is another of those intimate French films that indict American filmmakers and their audience). Why aren’t there more American movies that focus on one or two reasonably realistic characters, follow them for a while and explore the drama of the familiar, without all the car chases or snappy-patter jokes?

Okay, this year there have been at least two such films (Say Anything and sex, lies, and videotape), so maybe it’s the wrong time to complain. But in a country of 247 million people—and a world where there is room for eight Friday the 13ths—there should be more quiet films about people from Omaha or Muscle Shoals or Bangor.

Anyway, this film, directed by Claude Miller, is an extrapolation of a story left by Miller’s mentor, Francois Truffaut, when he died in 1984. It follows an orphaned teenage girl, Gainsbourg (ganz-BOOR), as she grows up in a village in postwar France. She lives with a sour aunt and pathetic uncle—he enjoys copying pictures of buildings and tells Gainsbourg, “I’m not trying to be Picasso. I do likenesses.”

Gainsbourg steals, from kleptomania or boredom, and finally has to leave town. This sets her off on a calm odyssey during which she has an affair with a married older man, meets a young biker and ends up in a reform school, where she falls in with the blithely manipulative Cardone.

There’s a little violence and sex, but the film is mostly about the education of Gainsbourg—at 17 she has a sweetly innocent face that looks like Dopey’s in Disney’s Snow White. The ending isn’t about happiness so much as rolling with the punches. And while its attitude may reflect a European tendency to be satisfied with limited expectations, the film admirably addresses the baffling process of growing up, a subject hardly foreign to Americans. (In French with subtitles) (R)

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