Sixties art-house standby Claude Lelouch is, as it turns out, alive and well and living in Paris. He's even directed a new film; the title, "Roman de gare," incessantly punned with in the film, apparently refers to those cheap paperback thrillers available at train stations, tawdry stuff good for a vacation perusal. A glance at my unusually thick press kit shows an interviewed Lelouch defensive about his alleged status as a "popular" or "mass" director (everything is relative) -- hence his adoption of X material.
Patricia Highsmith nods aside, "Roman de gare" is a uniformly cruddy-looking, asinine collection of best-seller tropes. Lelouch's approach is to let loose multiple ambiguous forebodings in the hopes that they will simultaneously overlay the film with suspense. The film opens with a bestselling mystery novelist (Fanny Ardant) being grilled by detectives in association with the death of her ghostwriter. Backtrack to a Dark and Stormy Night; the radio announces a pederast serial killer is on the loose, luring kiddies with magic tricks. Cut to: Pierre (Dominique Pinon) haunting a highway gas station, where he's trying to pick up Huguette (Audrey Dana), a devastated young woman who's just been ditched by her fiance while on the way home to meet her parents.
Resistant at first -- naturally, as Pinon, best remembered in the U.S. from Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films, has the squelched face of a deep-sea fish -- Huguette eventually acquiesces to his offer of a ride. Is he the escaped killer? The victim-to-be ghostwriter? Something else entirely? Regardless, anyone who's seen a movie will correctly predict that Pierre ends up posing as the absent boyfriend for Huguette's rustic family (they live one of those fetishized fantasies of rural life, unchanged since Petain's stand at Verdun). Thus the second foreboding: "The fox is loose in the henhouse," the potential assassin invited into vulnerable intimacies.
The idea, I suppose, is that Pinon's ugliness could equally well be read as endearing or sinister, though the film never develops any real sense of threat. For much longer than it has any right to be, "Roman de gare" is a very watchable, even involving, movie. All of this is thanks to Mme. Dana, a French screen neophyte. It's difficult to say how much of an actress she is, but she's extraordinarily appealing -- her features are pleasingly barbaric, her voice raw and dry -- and Lelouch has the sense to allow her ample time close-up in center screen.
The inevitable droop occurs when Huguette recedes, and the film defers its attention to ponderously coiling in its harvest of red herrings, opening the field to a population of dull secondary characters and double-crosses that produce a cumulative effect more tiresome than astonishing. Paraphrasing the old "Suspiria" tagline, the only thing more tedious than "Roman de gare"'s first 10 minutes is the last half hour.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a contributor to Stop Smiling, and a regular critic for the Village Voice.]