That the number of French films to find distribution here continues to dwindle is hardly news. What’s less noted is that while American cinephiles are familiar with French art film — Jacques Rivette, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin come to mind — they’ve had less exposure to France’s “boulevard” crowd pleasers. (Exceptions, of course, are art crossovers “Amelie” and “La Vie en Rose“). Now along comes “Roman de Gare” from Claude Lelouch, a thriller with the pace and jolting twists of a studio film. It proudly flaunts its pop creds: roman de gare translates as “airport reading’ or “potboiler” and Lelouch embraces the strong suit, as he sees it, of commercial fare.
You will remember Lelouch from his 1966 mega-hit “A Man and a Woman,” a medley of music and montage about a racecar driver and a widow, which took a critical drubbing (and implanted in the memory cells that dabba dabba da on the soundtrack). Over the years Lelouch has shot an amazing 41 films that have met with varying success, but here he’s all but disappeared off the radar. That may be about to change.
The plot of “Roman” involves a ghostwriter (Dominique Pinon) who may be a serial killer, a best-selling novelist (Fanny Ardant), and a woman abandoned at a highway rest stop (Audrey Dana). A love story as well as a thriller, “Roman” is above all a delectable tease, crafted to flummox the viewer till the very end. It also has “remake” written all over it. Yet in the French manner, Lelouch inflects genre with weightier insights into ambition, the panic of a burned-out writer, and his own working methods. He also flouts cinematic convention by fore-grounding an unappetizing fellow, who morphs before our eyes into a romantic lead.
indieWIRE recently chatted with Lelouch in New York, where “Roman de Gare” opened the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Rendez-vous with French Cinema” series. The seventy-year-old filmmaker looked trim in his black turtle-neck, spoke softly, laughing at unexpected intervals, and seemed amused by the speed bumps in his career. Samuel Goldwyn Films opens the film in limited release beginning Friday, April 25. Warning: light spoilers ahead.
indieWIRE: “Roman de Gare” has the intricate construction of a Swiss clock. Had you much prior experience in the thriller genre?
Claude Lelouch: I’ve made three or four thrillers, but never went so far in the construction. “Happy New Year” with Lino Ventura and Francoise Fabian, which I made 30 years go, resembles “Roman de Gare” in its love story. The constant in my films is love stories. I consider love the chief business of humanity.
iW: How long did it take to write the screenplay of “Roman de Gare?”
CL: I wrote it in several stages over nine months, the time it takes to make a baby. We shot the film in six weeks.
iW: What was the inspiration for the plot?
CL: I actually saw a woman dumped in a roadside gas station [as it happens in the film]. Then a man came back for her. These events always seem to happen in my line of sight, I seem to attract them. I sometimes follow people who attract my curiosity in the street for five, ten minutes.
But though the plot is very complicated, at the same time it’s simple. I tried to imagine the perfect crime. The perfect crime is when you push someone to suicide. I once read a study that said everyone in the course of their life has thought of killing someone (laughs). It’s a common fantasy. But if you want to kill someone, you’d better pull off a perfect crime. Our security lies in the fact that that’s damnably hard to do. I took this as my point of departure for “Roman de Gare.”
iW: I have an argument with your plot. Is it plausible that a writer would kill him/herself if exposed as a fraud? Here in America that person might just write a memoir.
CL: This character in my film has been humiliated. Now the entire world will know the books were written by someone else. It’s as if one fine day someone said, Claude Lelouch has never made any films. Shame is very painful to endure. For me it makes perfect sense that the character would kill herself.
iW: Part of the fun of “Roman” is the way the characters constantly thwart our expectations.
CL: It’s a film on Machiavelli-ism. Because the most sympathetic character, Dominique Pilon [the ghostwriter], is the real killer (laughs). It’s he who pushes someone to commit suicide. The most sympathetic character is also the most Machiavellian. That’s what makes this film tick. It’s constructed on paradoxes.
iW: It’s also almost an object lesson in keeping the viewer both fearful and perplexed about what’s going to happen next.
CL: Well, that was certainly my goal. I’ve seen many films and read lots of thrillers — and I’m always disappointed that I can guess the story before the other viewers. I decided that one day I had to make a film where the viewer couldn’t possibly guess the end. So I purposely mislead the viewer. At the same time, I wanted the story to be realistic. Because some people will see the film a second time, and it has to be fun to watch. The second time, of course, you see all kinds of subtleties…
iW: Yeah, the second time I caught a detail I’d missed in the farm scene. You create an atmosphere of dread by layering the sound of a pig getting slaughtered over Pinon’s departure with the teenage girl to go fishing.
CL: It’s a film built like a game that plays hide and seek with the spectator. I ask viewers to be active participants.
iW: The game also extends to the name Herve Picard, the alias you used for the film’s official director [which he dropped in due course].
CL: Yes, I wanted one of my movies to be seen for what it really was and not as a “Claude Lelouch film.”
iW: The movie starts with flash-forwards of the novelist being questioned by the police; then a few images that also belong to the end of the film. Why do you break up the narration in this way?
CL: I see a film as a puzzle, with a beginning, middle, and end, but I like to start at the end sometimes. I start with sequences that stimulate the viewer’s intelligence and emotions. You have to strike hard from the beginning and create a depressurizing zone between the viewer’s own life and the one onscreen. The creators of James Bond got it right: the attention-grabbing scene of each Bond movie is the very first one, before the opening credits.
iW: I’m struck by how Pinon and Audrey Dana progress from almost repellent to sympathetic.
CL: My goal was for the audience to start by detesting them and end by liking them. It’s part of the film’s originality. Today’s cinema is dominated by stars you like from the get go. I intentionally wanted to buck that trend.
iW: Does that explain your casting of non-stars in the lead?
CL: Stardom would have spoiled the script. If you have Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in the same film, you know they’ll end up together. I wanted an actor like Pinon who’s not usually seen as a seducer. But I wanted him to become attractive by the end of the movie. Show how one can be charming without good looks. Appearance is valued too much in our society. But for the diva-novelist I wanted an icon, so I cast Fanny Ardant.
iW: What is there of your own life in “Roman de Gare?”
CL: I’m in all my characters.
iW: Yeah, I know — but really. Like Fanny Ardant’s novelist, you’ve had a great early success you haven’t been able to equal.
CL: It’s funny: half my films were flops, half did well. It would be terrible if I’d had only success. Each time I hit a low point I learn the most. Failure is the best university. For fifty years now I’ve lived an incredible love story with cinema, and I take the highs and lows as they come.
iW: Which contemporary directors do you admire?
CL: Jean-Pierre Jeunet [“Amelie”]; Woody Allen, Cassavetes, some Coppola.
iW: I don’t hear any mention of the New Wave.
CL: I make the opposite kinds of films from them. They make boring films and I don’t like boring films. I make popular entertainments, not films for an elite. I’m a man of the street and I make simple films. Hollwood creates useful entertainment. There are millions of people on earth who need distraction and American cinema fulfills that function.
iW: I’m guessing you’ve already been approached by Hollywood to do a remake of “Roman.”
CL: Yes, but I’ve turned them down. The film is very good as it is, so why remake it?
CL: That’s not what interests me. But it’s a good film for the American market. They’ll have fun with it.
iW: What do you think of Sarkozy?
CL: I think it’s great to have a Rock ‘n Roll president. He’s young, vital, loves women, works hard.
iW: Do the French share your view?
CL: People are too pretentious in France to like Sarkozy. But he’d be a fabulous president for America.