Roman de Gare
Starring Dominique Pinon, Fanny Ardant, Audrey Dana, and Myriam Boyer
Directed by Claude Lelouch,br />
Rated R

There are many, many stories running through Claude Lelouch’s elegant French thriller Roman de Gare. The challenge is deciding which one to believe.

You could believe Judith’s story. It is, after all, the one that opens the film, told in flashback from Judith Ralitzer’s (Fanny Ardant) perspective as she waits at the police station where she’s being held for murder.

As she’s asked to explain the murder, Roman de Gare morphs from film noir black-and-white to the brilliant color of the French countryside in full vintner bloom. In this story-within-a-story, Judith is a nationally-known author researching a book about a murder in wine country. In the kind of tres French gesture that will either irritate or amuse viewers depending on what side of the political fence they occupy, Judith jokes about her plotline where the U.S. president is poisoned with her tainted wine. What could be more Gallic than to imagine taking out a president with that most iconic national export?

But before long Roman de Gare has taken a detour. It leaves Judith to take up residence with a squash-faced man (the instantly recognizable, to Diva and Jean-Pierre Jeunet fans, Dominique Pinon). Pierre Laclos is traveling on the French highway and may be — again depending upon one’s perspective — a teacher who has left his wife and children, the ghostwriter of Judith’s novels, or a pedophile/rapist/serial killer.

He picks up the despondent Huguette (Audrey Dana), who’s been abandoned by her fiancé at a highway gas station. Adding to the onion layers of truth and fiction, Huguette convinces Pierre to masquerade as her fiancé for the sake of her family, who is expecting to meet with their future son-in-law for the first time.

Tension arises from multiple sources in Roman de Gare, from the “did she or didn’t she?” murder plot line and the “is he or isn’t he?” serial killer question, but most exquisitely from scenes amidst Huguette’s farm family, a suspicious lot who clearly have their doubts about whether Pierre is their daughter’s doctor fiancé. Anxiety builds from multiple sources and Lelouch ratchets up the tension like a master.

In tone, Roman de Gare has the dark comedy thrills of Hitchcock with just enough of a touch of menace to suggest the Austrian dystopian Michael Haneke. The overlaying sound effects, of Huguette’s clan slaughtering a pig as Pierre leads Huguette’s lovely young daughter into the woods, makes the short-hairs on the back of your neck stand up with the foreshadowing of doom. Huguette’s farm family fluctuates between country oddities and the kind of rural nightmares familiar from American exploitation films.

Characters in Roman are largely unpleasant — until the end, when events change dramatically — which leads to a sense of confusion about whose point of view to privilege. No one is who they seem, a case exemplified by Huguette, who at various times in the story suggests she’s either a hooker or a hairdresser, but is decidedly and undeniably deeply neurotic. Since no real hero stands out, we are left to flounder. It’s a situation that plays with the usual film spectator identification with one person and one story line.

Roman de Gare takes its title from the kind of popular literature, the kind of beach or airport read, that provides lightweight, throwaway pleasure. But rather than fluff, Lelouch’s is a pleasingly serpentine story that will keep viewers guessing. Most satisfyingly, Lelouch (A Man and a Woman), at age 71, has a field day with all of the possibilities of narrative to mislead and bewitch, offering up a romance, a mystery, a thriller, and a smartly conceived meditation of storytelling that delights on all those levels.