Friday, May 23, 2008
French filmmaker Claude Lelouch leapt to international attention in 1966 with his lushly romantic A Man and a Woman . The Michel Legrand score became a hit and the film took home the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. But Lelouch, who alternates between documentary and narrative films back home in France, has never been able to duplicate the success of A Man and a Woman in the U.S., even when he tried a kind of Americanized variation, Another Man, Another Chance , and a sequel, A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later . With Roman de Gare , Lelouch tries his hand at a thriller but approaches it in a style that reflects the technical ingenuity he has displayed in his previous works.
Actress Fanny Ardant with director Claude Lelouch. (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Roman de Gare opens with a voice over black saying, "let's start at the beginning." We cut to black and white, noirish footage, of popular novelist Judith Ralitzer is being questioned in a police station (located in Paris' Quai des Orfevres, which provided the name for Henri-Georges Cluzot's classic crime thriller). Apparently, the cops suspect her involvement in possibly two murders. This prompts a flashback and a cut to color. We find Judith at a winery imagining lots of corpses and a dead U.S. president. Then we cut to years as Judith is being interviewed on a TV show and asked about the increase in literary quality between her first and second novel. Now hold that thought...
Cut to a pair of cars driving in Paris as the radio news reports that a serial killer has just broken out of prison. In one car a young woman fights with her boyfriend, in the other a mysterious man. When the woman's boyfriend dumps her at a gas station, the strange man approaches her. She is Huguette (Audrey Dana) and he is Pierre (Dominique Pinon of Diva and Delicatessen). Huguette is in a bind. The man who dumped her was her fianc e and she apparently needs to produce a fianc e at a family gathering to make her mother happy. So would Pierre oblige. He agrees but as time passes, we begin to suspect who Pierre really is and could he possibly be the serial killer on the loose or maybe he's the ghost writer Judith is suspected of killing.
Despite serial killers and murders, Roman de Gare maintains a rather light, playful tone that runs somewhat counter to its noirish elements. The title refers to the pulpy crime novels sold in French train stations (and the English title at one point was Crossed Tracks ). Reflecting the genre it's named after, the film twists and turns with false identities and misdirections arising every few scenes. Yet on a certain level the surprises of the plot are not that hard to figure out. Yet Lelouch's technical finesse and the appeal of his three leading performers proves quite irresistible. I felt hooked more because of the characters than for the intricacies of the plot.
A real kiss from a pretend fiancee? Things get complicated in Roman de Gare (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Pinon, an odd-looking gnome of a man, makes for an especially intriguing character. He is by no means your typical handsome leading man and he can manage to be both creepy and thoroughly endearing. His unconventionality is refreshing and he is a joy to watch. Dana, on the other hand, is a lovely actress who initially makes Huguette so abrasive that we fear spending time with her. But that's because the film introduces us to Huguette at her worst and in the midst of a fight with her boyfriend. The sleight of hand Dana pulls is to turn the character around so completely that we become enchanted by her as well. Ardant provides the elegant and polished veteran presence. She's deliberately hard to read as Judith and each time the film comes back to her we see her in slightly different ways.
Lelouch has fun playing with narrative structure, and weaving in and out of each person's story. Pierre slowly emerges as Judith's ghostwriter but then again he may just be a serial killer with a literary bent. Either way he explains to Huguette that writers are predators and he approached her because he saw the potential in her to be a good character in a book -- or maybe a good victim. The movement of the plot is more playful than blazingly clever, but it's compelling and entertaining. Yet it never enters the dark territory that Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool navigated. In Ozon's film Charlotte Rampling played a novelist who seemed willing to do anything for her creative process. Ardant never seems quite as chilling or threatening. But Ardant, after reading someone else work, does find delicious delivery for the line, "I'm dying of envy." The way she says it you feel like her envy must be strong enough to prompt her to kill.
Roman de Gare
(in French with English subtitles and rated R for brief language and sexual references) is a sleek, attractive package made even more appealing by a trio of exquisite performers.
Companion viewing: Swimming Pool, Diva, A Man and a Woman