Although he’s arguably the most influential art-film director ever, in recent years Jean-Luc Godard has often seemed merely a brilliant crank. Perhaps that’s because he’s lost his sense of timing. From 1960’s Breathless to 1968’s Weekend, Godard always paced the vanguard, whether artistically or politically. But that’s a gift he misplaced, either during his break from feature filmmaking in the ’70s or when he moved to small-town Switzerland toward the end of that decade. Certainly In Praise of Love, Godard’s most approachable movie in years, benefits immensely from the director’s return to Paris (as a subject, not a home). Still, the film arrived at an awkward moment: Many American critics happened to encounter the director’s shrillest piece of anti-Americanism at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 12, 2001.

Actually, only the second part of In Praise of Love is shrilly anti-American. The first section, which is roughly two-thirds of the 98-minute film, advances some of the same arguments, but only within a characteristically intricate web of allusions, quotations, and observations. Godard’s outrage at the failings of American culture—which began with the Vietnam War and culminates with his loathing for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List—is an integral but not overpowering element of this melancholy consideration of a world gone wrong. (A more literal translation of the title would be A Eulogy of Love.) Yet if the film’s first part is anguished, it hurts so good. Filmed in black and white (and mostly after dark) on the streets of Paris and its suburbs, the opening tone poem is luminous and enchanting. Combining this ravishing segment with a visually disparate final third, In Praise of Love is the loveliest film to open in Washington this year, and it’s unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.

But what’s it about? Godard, who’s never been much of a storyteller, offers two playful remarks on the role of narrative, one of them paraphrased from Roberto Rossellini (“There are things right in front of us. Why make things up?”) and the other apparently original (“They have to have a story, even in porno movies”). Much of In Praise of Love’s power comes from things—and people—right in front of us, but the film does have more of a story than most of the director’s post-1968 efforts: Edgar (Bruno Putzulu) has decided to make a work of art—film, play, novel, or opera, he’s not sure—on the four stages of a love affair: meeting, passion, loss, and reconciliation. It’s probably not going to be a novel, because he decides to cast a young woman, known simply as Elle (Cécile Camp), with whom he may be in love. For a sad reason, however, that plan cannot be fulfilled.

Then Godard flashes back to two years earlier, switching from subtle black-and-white film to garish, digital-impressionist color video—an inversion of the customary cinematic formula. Edgar travels to Brittany to interview two elderly veterans of the French Resistance (Jean Davy and Françoise Verny) and meets Elle for the first time. She’s the granddaughter of the old couple, who are negotiating with a U.S. State Department official representing Spielberg.

The Americans, who “have no history,” want to buy the Resistance heroes’ tale for a movie that will, presumably, turn France’s painful, conflicted period of German occupation into a feel-good blockbuster akin to Spielberg’s Holocaust heart-warmer. (Godard doesn’t acknowledge that the studio for which Spielberg made many of his biggest hits, Universal, is currently owned by a French company.) The anti-American jibes in this part of the film are simplistic, tendentious, and—most problematically—humorless. The only good gag is when two girls in traditional costume come to the door, campaigning for The Matrix to be translated into Breton.

That fleeting reference to Breton nationalism is a little incongruous, given that Godard never methodically analyzes what constitutes French—or, for that matter, American—identity. His observations, though erudite and far-ranging, are always personal and idiosyncratic. The film’s linked themes of memory and resistance are illustrated with glimpses of sites associated with World War II, but also with references—visual, verbal, or even musical—to such Godard favorites as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, and Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple. Despite the director’s fury at contemporary Hollywood, he hasn’t lost his affection for older American films, as he demonstrates by lifting a famous line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Besides, In Praise of Love’s shots of homeless people on the streets of Paris allude to a global economic order that can’t be blamed on Hollywood. Ideologically, the film might make more sense as a broadside against multinational capitalism. The director glancingly revisits his opposition to the Vietnam War, invokes Resistance martyr Simone Weil, and even adds a few more comments on the former Yugoslavia, the nominal subject of his earlier feature For Ever Mozart. But this isn’t a political film—or at least it’s a film in which politics are subordinate to sheer beauty.

The impossibility of cinema in the contemporary world is a recurring theme in Godard’s post-’70s career, and he has several times appeared in the role of a washed-up filmmaker. (In 1987’s King Lear, he cast director Leos Carax in the part and named that filmmaker-within-a-film Edgar, too.) With their formalistic repetition and enveloping despair, Godard’s later movies can be maddening. Not so with In Praise of Love, which recaptures the sensuousness and spontaneity of such ’60s romps as Breathless and Band of Outsiders. The director is no longer inclined to energize his intellectual conceits by sneaking them into scenarios borrowed from classic American B-movies, yet the images in his latest film seem as marvelously unstudied and open to possibility as those in his early work. Agenda aside, the result is simply more watchable than anything Godard has done in decades. The director’s thinking may be getting fuzzy, but his eye has never been sharper.

Im Kwon-Taek’s Chihwaseon is also pictorially striking, as well it should be: It’s the tale of a noted 19th-century Korean painter. The venerable director, who’s made 95 feature films, doesn’t attempt a cinematic look that’s directly akin to Jang Seung-up’s traditional brushed-ink style, but he and cinematographer Jung Il-sung (who also shot Im’s Chunhyang) do paint deftly with light and shadow. Cutting frequently, though never frantically, Im treats Jang’s life as a series of elegantly composed vignettes.

It won’t be obvious to most American viewers, but Chihwaseon (“Painted Fire”) is a fictionalization of Jang’s roughly 40-year career. There are few biographical accounts of the artist (who took the painterly pseudonym Ohwon), perhaps because he—unlike most traditional Korean painters—was not a scion of the aristocracy. Introduced in the movie as a grimy street kid saved from a beating, Jang grows into an outspoken, hard-drinking womanizer (played by Choi Min-Sik). His bad-boy demeanor is conveyed by such cracks as “How can you paint without an erection?” and “Without a drink and a woman, I can’t hold a brush.” (The popular belief that Jang could paint only when intoxicated is probably derived not from fact but from the fictional character of the drunken kung-fu master.) Although Jang is a type not unknown in Western art, the contrast between his boisterous behavior and the scholarly refinement of Chinese-style Korean painting is especially vivid, and Chihwaseon plays like a cross between Ed Harris’ brawling Pollock and Kenji Mizoguchi’s more restrained Utamaro and His Five Women.

As imagined by Im and co-writer Kim Yong-oak, Jang’s story is simple enough: a string of tumultuous and usually brief relationships with teachers, dealers, geishas, and patrons—including the king, who essentially imprisons Jang for a time as a court painter. The tale ends in 1897, when the artist simply disappears. Jang is an instinctive revolutionary, rejecting the long-held notion that painting is subsidiary to poetry and can be the province only of aristocrats well-studied in all the traditional arts. (“Painting is the expression of knowledge,” says one skeptic of Jang’s emotional, untutored style.) Chihwaseon puts the artist’s personal revolution in a broader context with terse but frequent references to the political upheavals of late-19th-century Korea: The country threw off its autocratic nobility, which Jang hated, only to find itself under the control of Japan, which he rejected just as strongly.

Genius is difficult to depict dramatically. Although he picks up some techniques and alters his approach over the course of his career, Jang wasn’t taught how to paint, and he doesn’t really grow as an artist or a person. He just gets older and crankier. Intentionally episodic, the film achieves its continuity from the painter’s ongoing sense of alienation, as well as its consummate visual style. The camera doesn’t treat every setup as a still composition, sometimes gliding slowly through one of the many short scenes, but Im does present Jang’s life as a series of impeccably framed moments. Chihwaseon is one master’s sketchbook of another’s life. CP