Not what they seem
French filmmaker makes good use of suspense and dialogue
As a wildly successful French novelist is given the third-degree by the le flic over the mysterious disappearance of her ghost writer, we flash back to a dark and stormy night a year previous.
The destinies of strangers (and the folk who orbit them) are about to cross paths: a school teacher who has skipped town on his wife and kids; a serial killer dubbed “The Magician” who has escaped custody; a lovely but aggressively confused young woman (Audrey Dana) cruelly abandoned by her fiance at a gas station; and the mysterious man (Dominique Pinon) who offers her a ride to her family’s remote farm.
To detail more would be a disservice to the wonderfully nuanced work by writer/director Claude Lelouch. An excellent escape from the hamfisted narratives of the Hollywood machine, Roman de gare is an understated pleasure that pulls off the rare feat of weaving with serpentine deftness dread and understated humor. None of the characters are exactly what they claim to be, even when they’re telling the ostensible truth to each other.
The film plays out as the proceedings echo the literary device that frames the first two acts. Ultimately, everything is resolved in a conventional manner, but the first hour of the film is an exercise in the way suspense is supposed to be built. It’s also aided immensely by perfect character work by Pinon, Dana and Fanny Ardant.
While it is a pleasure to see genre favorite Pinon (City of Lost Children) brought from the backgound to the main stage, it is Dana who is a pleasant discovery as the lost naïf Huguette. It’s a fearless and assured performance from the newcomer. After she accepts the ride from the mystery man, the roadbound interplay between here and Pinon is a rare pleasure in contemporary film, an emphasis in dialogue and character work over using such seemingly extemporaneous moments as a bridge between the spectacle.
Of course, the real star of the film is Lelouch, who applies a casual, loving touch to the proceedings that suggests a man who, after decades of acclaimed work, is still in love with the clockwork of narrative and filmmaking—at times giddy and at others ruthlessly calculating.
Roman de gare isn’t perfect. Once the dynamics of the characters are dealt out and the cards abruptly revealed at the hour mark, the remaining 40 minutes is almost a disappointment. Almost. Even as the film settles down into conventionality, the end result is still more than compelling.