Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Great Pretenders

In French, a roman de gare (“station novel”) is an easy-to-read novel, a thriller or romance that people buy to kill time in train stations or airports.

That’s the literary genre Claude Lelouch wanted to evoke in his 41st film, Roman de Gare, a tricky little potboiler with a largely unknown cast. Lelouch, whose lyrical 1966 Un Homme et une Femme (A Man and a Woman) made him famous, chose the title as a response to disparaging reviews that compared his recent movies to “photo romances” or romans de gare. “I played the game,” says Lelouch, now 71.

He played a game also with his identity, releasing the film under the pseudonym Hervé Picard. “I wanted one of my movies to be seen for what it really was and not as a Claude Lelouch film,” he has explained. He later called off the ruse, for legal reasons and because he felt it was wrong to show people a Claude Lelouch film when they have bought a ticket for a film by Hervé Picard. “I didn’t want to be a thief.”

It was a deception, appropriate for a film in which deception is one of the themes. The other theme, this being Lelouch, is love. The film’s characters all adopt false identities of some kind, and even the director (who also wrote the screenplay) willfully misleads the audience as to who the characters really are. Ultimately, love overcomes the need to wear masks.

Roman de Gare
is considerably smaller in scale and budget than early Lelouch films such as A Man and a Woman, but that suits its cheap-novel aspirations. It is essentially a road movie with interlocking narrative threads.

We first meet middle-aged, not very handsome Pierre (Dominique Pinon) as he drives his car in a rainstorm, listening to a radio program of songs by Gilbert Bécaud, a popular French singer of the 1950s and ’60s. (Windshield shots are a Lelouch trademark, and Roman de Gare is full of them.) Pierre sings along with the cheesy Bécaud songs, which are occasionally interrupted by bulletins about a serial killer just escaped from prison.

The movie strongly suggests that Pierre is the murderous pedophile, known as “The Magician,” who performs tricks to lure his young victims. Pierre, who looks a tad sinister with his gray beard stubble, does card tricks and conjures a bouquet of flowers for a little girl at a rest station.

He witnesses, at that rest station, a loud argument between Huguette (Audrey Dana) and her fiancé, who drives off without her. Pierre offers a ride to Huguette, a worried, chain-smoking hairdresser who berates herself pitifully for being “an airhead” and “a pain in the ass” who repels men. Huguette and her doctor fiancé had been traveling to visit her parents in the mountains. Pierre agrees to accompany Huguette and pretend to be her fiancé.

tells Huguette he is the ghostwriter for bestselling author Judith Ratlitzer, and then says he was only joking; he is really a schoolteacher who just walked out on his family. But that identity actually belongs to his brother-in-law, whose wife, Pierre’s sister, is frantically awaiting news about her missing husband.

Tensions arise when Pierre and Huguette visit with Huguette’s rustic family, especially when he becomes close to Huguette’s young daughter. If he is the child murderer, then Huguette’s daughter is in danger. Or is he a novelist, planning to use Huguette as a character in his next book?

The movie departs from the story of Huguette to focus on a mystery aboard the yacht of the jet-setting Ratlitzer (Fanny Ardant), who may be planning to kill Pierre. Lelouch seems more engaged with Huguette’s eccentric family and romantic troubles than with this artificial murder plot, which has the stale flavor of an old “Columbo” episode. Clearly the heart of the movie is Huguette, a woman who believes she is unworthy of love, until love unexpectedly finds her

Lelouch can call himself Picard and experiment with trash-novel tropes, but it in the end, he is revealed as Lelouch, the eternal romantic idealist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

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