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Roman de Gare

Claude Lelouch's Roman de Gare is an object lesson in the free syntax of film. Sooner or later, the written word has to make sense, and by inverting its elements you can make a sentence only somewhat more interesting. Roman de Gare shows us how, simply by playing with our expectations (by inverting the elements of the story), a movie can take the trite and render it riveting. I am not going to attempt any theories as to why we find it so much easier to make sense of visual nonsense than we do to decode mystifying texts, or why, in much the same way, we not only tolerate but revel in the manipulation of visual clichés when the same treatment of prose metaphors would seem arch or tiresome. In living up to its title — which more or less translates as "beach book" — Mr Lelouch's film delivers satisfactions that only the most inexperienced reader would find in his story if it were presented in words rather than moving pictures.

Perhaps all that needs to be said is that, while prose is far better than film at mining the details of interior life, film does an incomparable job of surveying its exterior — which for all intents and purposes is a matter of human physiognomy. It's what certain people have looked like on film that has given us the phenomenon, unknown before, of the movie star, a person who is widely famous simply for his or her looks. Almost all movie stars are good-looking people, but the best stars are also interesting to look at (no matter how uninteresting the contents of their minds). Perhaps the movies turn us all into pack animals, avid scanning the faces on the screen for vital clues about what's next.

It would be very easy to retell Mr Lelouch's story in dismissive terms. Who is Pierre — or is it Louis? anyway, the funny-looking guy (Dominique Pinon, unforgettable in 1981's Diva)? Is he a writer, a schoolteacher, or an escaped serial rapist? The story doesn't really give us a reason to care, but of course we do, because the actor's presence is both arresting and ambiguous. Knowing that he's a skilled performer of magic tricks, we naturally infer his ability to manipulate the impression that he makes on the people he meets, and when his attention fastens on Huguette (Audrey Dana), a self-described midinette* — a woman with almost no control of her emotions or of their manifestation — Pierre's advantage seems both unfair and dangerous, and we fully expect that he will take advantage of her. When he tells her that he is the ghost-writer (petit nègre) of best-selling author Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant), we wonder if he's lying. Then, when he tells Huguette that he has been kidding her, we wonder why he lied. Only at the end do we see that Mr Lelouch can distract us from what's really going on as well as any sleight-of-hand artist.

Pierre encounters Huguette at a highway service station, where she has been abandoned by her fiancé (some members of the audience will feel that she had it coming). Once he wears down her resistance, Huguette asks him to drive her on to her family's place in the mountains, and to pretend to be the fiancé for a day or two. Pierre complies, but everything about Mr Lelouch's choice vocabulary turns this bit of knight-errantry into the prelude to horror. The filmmaker proceeds to play with us as shamelessly as Pierre plays with malignity (dictating bloody details into a portable device, whether as notes to a novel or as the memorandum of an impending crime, we can't tell). While Huguette changes for dinner, Pierre joins the family in at the dining table and asks Huguette's brother for the sports section. When the brother hands it over, Pierre commences to rip it to shreds, declaring that he hates sports. He hates sports! We ought to see through this extraordinarily antisocial behavior to the magic trick that it is — v'là, the sports section is suddenly intact again — but we don't. Mr Lelouch, turning his camera on the surprised family members, who can't decide how to respond to this man to whom, apparently, they're soon to be related. The little episode is one of the most elegant jokes in film: Pierre's magic trick is the tip of an iceberg of cinematic signification.

What's really going on in Roman de gare is a lurid roman de gare. Judith Ralitzer, too busy with her celebrity appearances and yacht-board massages to have time to write, is brought to justice, and then really brought to justice. That is, she is tried first by the court of law and then by the court of telenovela jurisprudence. In fact, the character of Judith Ralitzer is a colossal red herring, and her story, which seems so central to the plot while the movie is running, is actually tangential at best. And who better to play a colossal red herring than the magnificent Fanny Ardant?** (April 2008)

* Can "airhead" really be the correct translation for this term? I think not.

** One thinks, of course, of Catherine Deneuve; but, in the numerous films that she has graced with brief performances in far from principal parts, her role has always seemed to be that of fairy godmother, whether in the plot or for the producers.

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