2007 // France // Claude Lelouch // July 16, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - Here is a curious thing: a mind-bending thriller about writing and secrets, that ultimately proves to be not so mind-bending after all. In fact, Roman de Gare's destination is so distractingly ordinary, I found myself wondering whether some grand thematic gesture had slipped past me. This frustration lingers, and forestalls the film's ambitions for inky insight, if it ever had any. No matter. Roman de Gare thrills for its first two acts, scrawling the viewer's psyche with whorls of maddening suspense. The tidiness of its resolution will be welcome to some, but there is a vacuous and vulgar dimension to the film's conclusion. The elegant thematic breadth of the film vanishes in a puff of ugly comeuppance, leaving only a balm of soothing sentimentality.
Roman de Gare begins with a writer. The Paris police interrogate a novelist, Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant), who may or may not have committed a murder. The detective urges her to start at the beginning. Judith cannot approach it any other way, because she is a writer. In flashback, we glimpse her touring a winery in Burgundy, where she is researching a new novel. Then the film leaves Judith and eavesdrops on other people. Huguette (Audrey Dana) and her fiancé bicker during a car trip to visit her bumpkin family. He strands her at a gas station, and a mysterious man (Dominique Pinon) offers her a ride. Clues suggest that he may be a teacher who has just abandoned his wife and children, or the novelist's ghost writer, or an escaped serial killer. We also meet a Parisian housewife whose husband has recently vanished, as well as the detective she pleads with for help. Who are all these people? How are they connected? The languid pace and curious menace of Roman de Gare urge patience. All will be revealed.
Things Happen in this film, but I shan't discuss how the events resolve themselves into a plot. The slow reveal of that plot is the film's central joy. Yet the wicked pleasures of Roman de Gare are less cinematic in nature than literary. Scenes unfold and circle each other, the components gradually snapping into place. This is a film that carefully doles out "Aha!" moments. Early on there is a Lynch-ian sensation of disconnect, and a creeping suspicion—part dread, part thrill—that hallucinatory juxtaposition may the only rationale for some of the film's scenes. Alas, Roman de Gare isn't that ambitious. Undeniably, the film exhibits a enviable, fiendishly untraceable ability to conjure dread from normalcy. Tension is established with the most unassuming props and lines: a bouquet of flowers, a newspaper, a suggestion for a walk in the woods. The film's most electric, stomach-flipping moment deals with the unexpected appearance of a car. Impressive also is Roman de Gare's ability to execute dizzying reversals as to the source of its suspense, a deftness that would do Hitchcock proud. One moment we are anxious that a character's deception will unravel. The next moment we are plagued with unseemly fears when he is left alone with a young girl. Unlike the elegant emotional shell game of Psycho, however, Roman de Gare's shifts rely on an unreliable narrator and a careful rationing of revelations.
Who are we to sympathize with? Who are we to believe? Like most thrillers, Roman de Gare takes deception as a primary theme. Like nearly all thrillers about writing, it also putters with meta-textual notions of authorship and character. It inevitably calls to mind last year's Atonement, another seductive but flawed film about writing, fiction, and the rationales for deceit. While Roman de Gare lacks Atonement's aimlessness—indeed, it is almost too neat—it also lacks that film's grandeur and aura of crumbling doom. Roman de Gare concerns itself with the cruelty of characters, rather than that of calamity or fate, and as a consequence the film craves a screenplay that can cover its tracks. Sadly, writer-director Claude Lelouch isn't up to the challenge, and too often the film's otherwise engaging characters behave as if tugged around by their collars.
The performers themselves, meanwhile, are a pleasure to behold. Pinon, all simian lips and gray stubble, exudes that strange brand of male magnetism that even the most gnomish of urban Frenchmen seem to possess. He brings to his mysterious traveler a disarming realism, with marvelously understated glimmers of confusion, menace, and anguish. Ardant plays her ambitious novelist to the giddy hilt--first a satin charmer, then a harpy. The film's captivating fulcrum is Dana, however. Even more than Pinon's mystery man, her Huguette is an enigma, a woman who confesses everything in a tearful rush, and yet still harbors secrets and shifting schemes. More than once she recalls Rebecca Pidgeon's little gray mouse-turned-tiger in The Spanish Prisoner. Watch Dana carefully—and Pinon too—in a scene where the police stop their car in her family's shitheel town. Dana's demeanor turns on a dime to deliver a convincing performance for the policeman's benefit, the intensity of it setting Pinon (and us) on edge. Then keep an ear open for a scene where she fakes a mind-blowing orgasm, for reasons I can't explain here. It's worth the price of admission, and emblematic of the film itself. Roman de Gare coaxes forth expectations of a bolder film alongside its thrills, and then leaves them unfulfilled.