July 31, 2008

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Roman de Gare (R)
Story-telling sleight-of-hand turns the innocent-ish story of a woman taking her fiancé to meet her parents into an occasional nail-biter of a mystery in Roman de Gare, a French movie that has you busy looking at the implied story while it pulls the real plot out from behind your ear.

An extremely cursory Google of the phrase “roman de gare” suggests that it means something like “airport novel,” even though the word “tracks” appears in the subtitles when the words “roman de gare” are spoken onscreen. “Airport novel” makes infinitely more sense.

And, as with any really good airport novel, there’s not much I can say about the story without giving it away. A man whose name might be Isaac (Dominique Pinon) sees a pretty woman named Huguette (Audrey Dana) fighting with her boyfriend (Cyrille Eldin), who quickly dumps her at a rest stop on a highway. Maybe-Isaac creepily hangs about offering her a ride until, hours after the initial offer, she accepts. Accepts, let me reiterate, the offer of a ride made by the man who has hung about waiting for her to get desperate enough to go with him. She is heading to her parents’ house, having intended to introduce them to the boyfriend whom she intended to marry. After a while, however, actual marriage becomes less necessary than the appearance of marriage and she asks Isaac to pretend to be her fiancé for the weekend.

Again, she asks the man she’s just hours earlier met to pretend to be her fiancé, meet her parents and her young daughter, even after he gives a mysterious description of himself and mumbles foreshadowy things into tape recorders.

Meanwhile, hovering godlike over this plot is the writer Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant), who herself recently wrote a book called Roman de Gare.

Other things: a pig is slaughtered and we hear its squeals over the ominous footage of Huguette’s daughter walking into the woods with a stranger. Radio reports update us on the status of an escaped serial killer. A woman pleads for a police officer to find her missing husband. Relentlessly cheery 1950s French music plays at what seem like all the wrong times. Roman de Gare pokes fun at the conventions of the airport novel mystery and then creeps you out with them. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to yell “don’t go there with him!” at the screen during a foreign-language film but I know I was occasionally tempted to do so.

What really sells the not-right-ness that gives this mystery its off-kiltered-ness is the performance of Dominique Pinon. He is, to paraphrase cops on all police procedural TV shows, a guy you like for something bad. The way he looks a little too long at people, gets a bit too close to them, doesn’t take social cues right away. His glasses and the mannered way he pushes them up on his face. His non-descript clothes. He is the guy people are talking about when they say “he was quiet, kept to himself, seemed polite” about the neighbor they’ve just learned has a dozen heads in his freezer. What is he? The movie plays with your instincts about him, teasing you with one possibility and then suggesting another. It’s not about some last-10-minutes-of-Law & Order twist, it’s about subtle confusion and misdirection, just like the magic tricks that flirt with us throughout the movie.

Roman de Gare is smarter and more fun than your average airport novel but just as much breezy summer fun. B+

Rated R for brief language and sexual references. Written and directed by Claude Lelouch, Roman de Gare is an hour and 43 minutes long, in French with subtitles and distributed in limited release by Samuel Goldwyn Films. The movie is currently playing at Red River Theatres and at Wilton Town Hall Theatre.