Claude Lelouch is the Robin Leach of French cinema, a gold-plated peephole into the lives of the rich and famous, with their yachts and caviar and graceful lunges toward l'amour. He's still best known in this country for that old tub of Dream Whip, 1966's A Man and a Woman. But with Roman de Gare, his latest opus to come our way, Lelouch seems to have reinvented himself - literally, in the sense that he wrote and directed it under a pseudonym, metaphorically in the sense that this isn't the kind of movie we expect from him. The pseudonym may have been a way of getting past the screening committee at the Cannes Film Festival, which might not otherwise have given him a fair hearing, based on his reputation. But it's hard to believe they would have rejected the movie even if they'd known Lelouch's identity. Roman de Gare is strangely delectable, a bonbon laced with cyanide.
Call it a murder mystery within a murder mystery within a murder mystery that starts with - what else? - a man and a woman. The woman's name is Huguette (Audrey Dana), and after being dumped by her fiancé at a gas station, she accepts a ride from a mysterious stranger played by Dominique Pinon. The mysterious stranger may be a serial killer; the radio says there's one on the loose. Or he may be a schoolteacher who just abandoned his wife, kids and job. Or he may be a ghostwriter for the celebrated crime novelist Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant). Or he may be all three. But right now he's agreed to impersonate Huguette's fiancé at the engagement party planned by her rustic family. Huguette is a hairdresser, by the way. Or maybe she's a prostitute. Or maybe she's both. Floating identities are the name of the game.
Those are the pieces, but Lelouch is playing three-, if not four-dimensional chess. Because if the mysterious stranger really is the crime novelist's ghostwriter, if he's the only reason she's become so rich and famous, then maybe everything he says and does is research for his/her next book. And maybe he's sick and tired of doing all the work while she gets all the credit. And maybe he plans to go public. And maybe she knows that. And maybe she has a plan of her own. Maybe. Maybe not. Lelouch makes sure there's always some room for doubt. But while playing his little game of cat-and-mouse with us, he also makes sure we don't get too far ahead or too far behind. Is the mysterious stranger calling the shots, plot-wise? Is the crime novelist? Is Lelouch? Thus the mystery within a mystery within a mystery, each of which tantalizes us with its various secrets and lies.
"All novelists are predators," the mysterious stranger tells Huguette, and that's certainly one of the movie's themes. But so is the idea that a novelist has to write his own story, so to speak. Or, as Lelouch told The New York Times, "It's a film built like a thriller, but at the same time it's a film about creation." It's also a film about - this is Lelouch, after all - love. Huguette and her mysterious stranger, if one of them doesn't wind up dead, are meant for each other, in a weird kind of way. And the two actors deserve a lot of credit for getting that across. As Huguette, Dana seems both simple and sly, the kind of woman who reads mystery novels but figures out who did it well before the end. And Pinon, who looks like Robin Williams doing Popeye, brings all sorts of shadings to the mysterious stranger. You realize later that every move he makes can be interpreted any number of ways.