Times Staff Writer

Ever since Jean-Luc Godard made his "second beginning" with "Every Man for Himself" in 1979, his films have become increasingly rigorous.

With "Detective" (at the Beverly Center Cineplex Friday), he has pared narrative to the bone, yet packed its every sequence so tightly with references and associations that it's impossible to absorb all of them in one viewing. Indeed, Godard has thrown at us a plot so complicated and so utterly shorn of exposition that it's the audience who must play "detective" simply to solve the mystery of who's who and what's what.

Not everyone is going to want to accept this role, and those who do almost certainly will be among the long-ago initiated and admiring of the Godard style. "Detective," which unfolds as a series of quick sketches, definitely is not an introductory course to Godard but rather a graduate seminar. As such, it's a pleasure, albeit a demanding one, that's saved from pretentiousness by a dark throwaway humor that seems to get bleaker all the time. (Godard, who dedicates his film to John Cassavetes, Edgar G. Ulmer and Clint Eastwood, is always in danger of being taken too seriously.)

The best tack is not to try too hard to figure out what's going on but to go along with all that happens, hoping that connections will become clear--they do, to a degree--and concentrate instead on the beautiful precision and economy of expression of every image and camera movement. How Godard is expressing himself is really more important than what he's saying, which is largely familiar anyhow. Once again he contemplates the impossibility of knowing anything for certain--especially about women--and the need for action even if it ends badly. (Godard's "Breathless" might share the terse summary Godard applies to "Detective": "A man loves a woman who leaves him.")

The man in this instance is Claude Brasseur, an airplane pilot who clearly adores the wife (Nathalie Baye) who is having an affair with boxing manager Johnny Hallyday. Brasseur and Baye have checked into Paris' elegant Hotel Concorde Saint Lazare, the film's sole setting. The couple are involved in a murky scheme to latch on to 40 million francs, and just about everyone on camera is involved in it or affected by it in some way.

Besides the fighter (Stephane Ferrara) Hallyday manages and his entourage, there's an elderly Mafioso (the late Alain Cuny) and his party which includes two youngsters. Finally, there's a detective (Laurent Terzieff) whose surname is Prospero and who quotes from "The Tempest," and his group which includes his nephew Jean-Pierre Leaud, a police inspector much more Clouseau than Maigret. They're ostensibly trying to solve the killing of a prince that occurred in the hotel two years earlier.

What Godard makes count is his people's behavior and the detached compassion with which he views it, not the unraveling of plot. Therefore, what stays with us is Brasseur's middle-aged anguish, Baye's disenchantment and skepticism, the cool of the sinewy, cynical Hallyday, and the patrician Cuny's shrewdness and sarcasm. (He caustically dismisses Baye's beauty as "fake Botticelli.") There is a tremendous sense of intimacy and immediacy in this film. Godard, his writers and his cameraman, Bruno Nuytten, make us feel that we're eavesdropping into people's lives, in which the most banal activities are set off by great swatches of classical music.

Leave it to Jean-Luc Godard to turn a policier story into a philosophical discourse on the meaning of life (or the lack of it) and still turn out a film that seems marked above all by spontaneity. Yet you have to wonder if his consummate command of his medium in its current relentless minimalism isn't heading toward an all-out obscurantism. But for now, one of the key remarks in "Detective" (Times-rated Mature for its highly complex style and adult situations) still applies: "In the end everyone is left with a fragment of the truth."

'DETECTIVE' A Spectrafilm release of a Sara Films/Jean-Luc Godard co-production, France/Switzerland. Exec. producer Alain Sarde. Director Jean-Luc Godard. Screenplay Alain Sarde, Philippe Setbon; adaptation Anne-Marie Mieville, Godard; dialogue Godard. Camera Bruno Nuytten. Music Schubert, Wagner, Chopin, Listz, Honegger, Chabrier, Ornette Coleman, Jean Schwarz. Featuring Claude Brasseur, Nathalie Baye, Johnny Hallyday, Laurent Terzieff, JeanPierre Leaud, Alain Cuny. In French, with English subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature.

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