Moviegoers of a certain vintage see the name Claude Lelouch and are likely to be transported back 42 years to one of those rare moments in film history when a foreign-language film crossed out of the art house and into popular public consciousness. The film was Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman, and it became, for many, the quintessence of French romance on film. Whether it really was or not, it sealed forever the idea of Lelouch as a romantic filmmaker. On the evidence of the 70-year-old Lelouch’s new film, Roman de Gare, he’s as romantic as ever, and in an almost old-fashioned sense. When was the last time you saw a movie that spent its running time working toward a kiss for its final moment? Well, that’s pretty much what you have here—and it’s kind of nice. This isn’t to say that Roman de Gare is a straightforward romance. Far from it. In both story and style, the movie is anything but straightforward.
The title refers to a type of disposable literature—the train-station novel, which we would call the airport novel—that’s meant to pass the time while waiting for a train. It’s usually a trashy romance or mystery. In Roman de Gare it’s a bit of both, but as envisioned and put together by Lelouch, it’s a little essay in brilliantly convoluted storytelling and cinematic legerdemain. At bottom, it’s a filmmaker having fun leading the viewer down the garden path, enjoying nothing so much as leading you to suspect one thing while setting you up for something else. The fact that Lelouch thinks nothing of twisting the film’s timeline to suit his own purpose makes it just that much more playful.
The story concerns a popular French novelist, Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant, Paris, Je T’Aime), who has at last written a work of more-than-usual substance called God, the Other, but that’s only a setup for where the plot will go. The film itself is more about how God, the Other came into being—something that involves a young woman, Huguette (Audrey Dana, To Each His Cinema), traveling with her fiancé (Cyrille Eldin) to visit her parents. Things don’t go well, and she finds herself abandoned at a rest stop where she meets an odd man, Louis (Dominique Pinon, who has been in all of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films from Delicatessen on), who wants to help her.
The problem is—from the viewer’s standpoint at least—he very well may be an escaped serial killer. The fact that Lelouch isn’t married to any particular timeline makes it difficult to tell, but Louis certainly does perform magic tricks, which is the means through which the escaped killer attracts his victims. Also, he’s peculiar. He hangs around the rest stop for hours in the belief that Huguette will eventually accept a ride from him when she realizes her fiancé isn’t coming back, which, of course, turns out to be true. But is he the killer? Mightn’t he instead be a schoolteacher who’s suddenly gone missing? He fits that bill, too. Or possibly he’s what he briefly claims to be: Judith Ralitzer’s ghostwriter. If that’s the case, is he perhaps interested in Huguette for material for a book?
For that matter, who is Huguette? Why is she so worried about what her parents think? Is she really a hairdresser from Paris? Did she actually do Princess Di’s hair the day before she died? What prompts her to persuade Louis to masquerade as her fiancé to satisfy her parents? Has she really put herself and her semi-estranged daughter at risk by bringing this stranger to pose as her fiancé? So many questions are raised, and so many are answered in ever more clever ways throughout the film.
In many ways, Lelouch’s film is—in its somewhat old-fashioned way (which isn’t a pejorative)—the most bracing dose of cinema I’ve seen all year. The manner in which he plays image off image, uses slow dissolves to create two images playing at once, changes scenes on point-of-view shots so that the viewer isn’t always sure whose point of view is being expressed—all these are old “tricks.” But they remind us of the very essence—the nuts and bolts—of what makes a film a cinematic experience. There’s one shot in the film—that follows figures going into the woods before slowly zooming back across the field and over the farmhouse, while the sounds of a banal pop song mix with the screams of a pig being slaughtered—that’s one of the few truly startling pieces of cinema I’ve seen in a while.
Make no mistake, Roman de Gare isn’t ultimately a terribly weighty film. I’m not sure Lelouch is a weighty artist. It is, however, a brilliant—and brilliantly playful—exercise in the art of filmmaking. Its depth is perhaps no greater than that of an actual “roman de gare,” but, like its namesake, at its best, it’s irresistibly entertaining. Rated R for brief language and sexual references.