LITTLE ROCK In French, roman de gare literally means "station book," and could be more gracefully translated as "airline reading." It refers to the kind of engrossing but lightweight novel that's typically for sale in airports and train stations, the middlebrow thrillers and mysteries that help traveling time pass.
Claude Lelouch, the veteran French director who won an Academy Award more than 40 years ago (for A Man and a Woman), has always been a deeply superficial filmmaker, seeming more interested in teasing his audience than telling a story. And so it is with this alternately charming and annoying little baguette, designed to be the cinematic equivalent of its title.
The legendary Fanny Ardant is Judith, a wealthy typer of bestsellers who has recently released - to the shock of the critics - Dieu Est Un Autre (God Is the Other), a literary novel with a title evoking Rimbaud's poem "L'Eternite." It is the finest work of her career, a book in which the pop novelist seems to have re-invented herself as a transcendent writer.
At the same time, a serial killer and child rapist called The Magician has escaped from a Paris prison. Could he be Pierre, the dour, black-clad man played by Dominique Pinon - the diminutive French character actor who usually plays grotesque dwarves?
He claims he is Judith's ghost writer, but he performs magic tricks for children and watches with something more than passing interest when difficult Huguette (Audrey Dana) viciously quarrels with her handsome doctor boyfriend, Paul. Fed up with Huguette's smoking and irritability, Paul dumps her at a remote service station where Pierre isfilling up. Pierre approaches her, offers her a ride. Get lost, creep, she tells him.
But he waits around for hours until she realizes Paul isn't coming back. She gets into his car and he starts telling her about "the perfect crime." He makes her laugh, she decides to ask him for a huge favor.
Meanwhile, back in Paris, a schoolteacher named Louis has disappeared, his desperate wife consults a detective. Could he have been a victim of The Magician?
How much you enjoy Roman de Gare may ultimately depend on your tolerance for meta-fictional games; red herrings are the movie's point. We're not really supposed to care for these characters as people; Roman de Gare is at times suspenseful, but Lelouch is too civilized to genuinely shock his audience. He gives us much to admire - intricate crosscuts and an exquisitely beautiful glance at a French countryside populated by Gallic rednecks - but it's all on the surface. Despite its title, this is a cerebral movie, one that frankly may be too clever to appeal to the mainstream American market. It has a sweet look but it's ultimately dry, acerbic and astringent.
Lelouch is more about demonstrating the malleability of his imagined universe than solving puzzles. His movie is about the creation of fiction, the way we spin lies together into a simulacrum of life - if there's any philosophical point of view beyond that it's that every narrative is necessarily an abridgment of truth.
Roman de Gare86Cast: Fanny Ardant, Dominique Pinon,Audrey Dana Director: Claude Lelouch Rating: R for language, sexual references Running time: 103 minutes In French with English subtitles
MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 08/01/2008