Roman de gare
There's a scene early on in Roman de gare where a woman who's just been abandoned at a gas station after an argument with her boyfriend is weeping. A man has been observing her and asks her if she's all right. After a brief conversation, she asks to be left alone. When he
continues to show interest in her plight, she snaps, "Do you understand French?" Her meaning, of course, is similar to when we might sarcastically say to someone, "Do you understand English?" when they fail to grasp what we're saying, even though we know they speak our language fluently.
This French summer thriller from Claude LeLouch occasionally makes it difficult to keep our disbelief suspended, but as long as we're willing to be entertained, that's the only language we need to understand. The film starts with a dizzying shot from the front end of a fast-moving vehicle. LeLouch's camera whizzes through intersections and even appears to run red lights. On the radio, we hear that a serial killer called "the magician," a pedophile rapist who likes to lure his young victims in with a magic trick, has escaped from prison. We see a man (Dominique Pinon) driving the car on a rainy highway. Could he be the killer?
This unwillingness to define his characters is the game LeLouch plays with his audience. It's unclear who this man is - we're not even sure about his name for quite some time. And his propensity to do magic tricks for strangers at a highway rest stop is certainly unsettling. So when Huguette (Audrey Dana) is abandoned at the rest stop following a particularly harrowing fight with her fiancé, she has vulnerability written all over her. "Written" would be the key word here, because the other theme of LeLouch's film is authorship.
Another scene early in the film is a famous author being interviewed on television with several other writers. The host of the show is telling Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant) that while he loves her new novel, he really disliked the previous one. He asks her if anything happened between "Tracks" and "God, the Other," the new book. She shrugs and says, "Maybe God whispered it to me."
Actually, her ghostwriter, Pierre Laclos, wrote it for her. Ralitzer has been passing off his work as her own for the past seven years. A good deal of the film unfolds before we're sure who Laclos actually is (and to avoid giving too much away about the plot, that's all I'm going to say about the deliberate character confusion.)
In the middle of all this is Huguette, who employs the stranger at the gas station to act as a stand-in for her wayward lover. The couple had been on their way to see her family, who live in the mountains, when her boyfriend drove off angrily. Huguette, a hair dresser, smokes frantically and berates herself for being stupid and unlovable. Her driver - the stranger - does not complain about her smoking, like her boyfriend did, but instead just listens. Dominique Pinon's mercurial face can do many things, and perhaps quirkiness is his biggest asset (Delicatessen). But handsome he is not, especially with a few days' stubble. To see him as Audrey Dana's fiancé also beggars belief, but on the other hand, grizzly French actors are often paired with stunning French actresses so who knows? Maybe it's par for the course.
Huguette and her stand-in concoct a story to tell her parents, although there are several times when they appear to stitch themselves up in the lie (with hilarious results). He introduces himself as Isaac Silberman (or something similar) and then Huguette's mother asks, "Isn't your name Paul?" They quickly inform her that Paul is actually his middle name. He hits it off with the laconic family by showing them an impressive magic trick, then goes trout fishing with Huguette's 13-year-old daughter. When they don't come back for a long time, we begin to wonder, as does Huguette. I'll just say this: Roman de gare is not a horror movie.
While Huguette and the stranger are traveling, he pauses several times to record notes into a handheld recorder. He tells Huguette that he's ghostwritten all of Ralitzer's novels, something which she appears to believe. While this is happening, we are also following another thread: a woman's husband has disappeared and she ends up falling for the detective who is helping her on the case. When her husband comes back to tell her he's leaving her, she's not all that
LeLouch manages to thread these different plotlines together by the end of the film. All of these characters are connected, whether they know it or not. The question is...who gets their comeuppance in the end? The arrogant author or her disgruntled ghostwriter? LeLouch keeps the audience guessing. I was entertained, but I can also see how it might be annoying. Still, LeLouch's relentless close-ups, his thundering camera angles and his focus on the minutiae prove that he does care about his characters, and he wants us to care. Huguette's stranger might only see her as potential material (as a murder victim, real or imagined), but she's more than she appears to be, as is Ardant's author, Judith Ralitzer.
So if the temperature gets too hot next weekend, head up to Landmark Theatre in the Fashion Mall and give Roman de gare a chance.