ROMAN DE GARE
Running time 103 minutes
Written by Claude Lelouch and Pierre Uytterhoeven
Directed by Claude Lelouch
Starring Dominique Pinon, Fanny Ardant, Audrey Dana
Claude Lelouch’s Roman De Gare, from a screenplay by Mr. Lelouch and Pierre Uytterhoeven, scores a few points as it pretends to play out as a feature-length suspense narrative of the sort adapted from paperback best sellers one picks up at the airport for supposedly light reading on the trip or at the beach. Mr. Lelouch is still best known for A Man and a Woman (1966) with Jean–Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée. That year it won both the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the Oscar for foreign-language film. It was his eighth feature film after seven previous flops had placed his career in jeopardy. In the 40-some years since, he has made 41 feature films and countless television movies. Nonetheless, his continuing popular success is coupled with a widespread disdain among the more serious film critics. Mr. Lelouch was so aware of this disdain that he originally made Roman De Gare under a directorial pseudonym, Hervé Picard, so that his enemies in the critical establishment would not have a “Lelouch” work to denounce.
Mr. Lelouch explained his ultimately futile search for anonymity in his film’s production notes. “It’s a way to deal with fame,” he said. “I wanted to send a message to those who dismiss my work. I wanted one of my movies to be seen for what it really was, and not a Claude Lelouch film.” Did he succeed? I’m not sure, but the comparative ingenuity of the narrative places it several notches above A Man and a Woman for sheer unpredictability.
But to explain what is most surprising about the narrative, I must ask the reader not to read any further in my review until they have seen the movie for themselves or have already decided not to see it. Actually, despite all my reservations, I think it is worth seeing, though I do not approve of all the trickery involved.
The film begins near the end of its story with the police interrogation of Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant), best-selling writer of Romans de Gare, about her having possibly murdered an undisclosed missing person. At about the same time, she is also being interviewed by a television moderator about her secret formula for writing best sellers. She replies with a smiling demurral to having any kind of formula.
The action then shifts to several seemingly unrelated events much earlier in the film, the first dealing with an escaped homicidal pedophile, whose murderous acts are facilitated by magic tricks he performs to lure his child targets to their doom. Presto, we are shown a singularly unattractive older man (Dominique Pinon) performing a trick with flowers for a little girl accompanied by her parents at an otherwise largely deserted automobile rest stop late at night. After the little girl and her parents have driven off, the suspicious-looking amateur magician can’t help noticing a couple screaming at each other beside a nearby car. Suddenly, the man of the couple drives off alone, leaving his girlfriend stranded. The sinister person offers the woman, Huguette (Audrey Dana) a lift, but she refuses for the longest time, even though her fiancé doesn’t answer his cell phone. Finally, she accepts the stranger’s offer, and we go, “Uh-oh.”
Meanwhile, another woman has reported that her husband, a teacher, is missing. By now we know that this woman will be shoehorned into the plot somehow. Back on the road, when Huguette’s mysterious driver stops his car at a lonely stretch of road, looks around cautiously and suggests very improbably that they go for a nice walk in the woods, we immediately expect the worst. But we breathe a sigh of relief when she refuses his invitation, and instead invites him to pose as her fiancé for her parents in the rural village to which she and her real fiancé were heading when they had their final quarrel.
Mr. Pinon’s suspected pedophile agrees, and we are soon engulfed by the ridiculously primitive Tobacco Road-like dwelling of Huguette’s parents. The parents are immediately suspicious of this old and ugly fiancé of Huguette. Nonetheless, the Pinon character is quickly invited to go trout-harvesting by Huguette’s nymphet-aged daughter. When they don’t come back for hours, we and the parents suspect the worst. And when they finally return at nightfall, loaded with trout, we begin to suspect that the Pinon character is not who we have been cued to suspect and fear he is. Not long after, a news bulletin informs us that the real serial-killer pedophile has been caught by the police.
But then who is Huguette’s driver? Is he the missing teacher-husband? The missing husband turns up only to tell his wife that he is leaving her for good. This news delights her no end, because in the meantime she has started an affair with the detective investigating her husband’s disappearance. As for her revealed brother, the still mysterious Pinon character, he takes on still another identity, as the ghost writer all these year in the guise of Ms. Ardant’s faux novelist’s secretary. His latest ghost-written masterpiece is one he has been secretly and suspiciously recording from the moment he first saw Huguette, and decided to imagine himself as the escaped pedophile.
At some point in the proceedings, I decided that enough was enough, even though the narrative became even more intrigue-ridden when the ghost writer decides to fake his own murder after he realizes that Ms. Ardant’s faux novelist intends to murder him. This subterfuge leads to her being exposed as a fraud, and committing suicide as a consequence. This leads Ms. Dana’s Huguette and the Pinon gargoyle to embrace finally as the greatest mismatch of the elective affinities since Beauty and the Beast, not to mention Fay Wray/Naomi Watts and King Kong. This, at least, is somewhat original for a movie love story.