If American moviegoers are familiar with Claude Lelouch at all, they probably know the French filmmaker only from his popular 1966 romance, A Man and a Woman — and even that movie is probably better known for the seductive groove of its soundtrack than for the film itself. But Lelouch's long career includes all kinds of films, some of them quite daring and quite good, and Roman de Gare — his 49th film! — is one of the director's best.
On the most visible of its several levels, Roman de Gare is a thriller, a distant cousin to the films of Claude Chabrol (aka the "Gallic Hitchcock"), but Lelouch's movie is also a fine romance, a witty reverie on the creative process and a dance of muddled and mistaken identities that at times almost approaches the metaphysical heights of Vertigo. The framing device is a famous writer (Fanny Ardant) being interrogated for having supposedly committed a perfect crime (a murder, although the victim isn't revealed until well into the game), but the movie mostly concerns itself with connecting the dots between an alternately charming and ominous figure played by Dominque Pinon (the grizzled little Popeye clone from Delicatessen) and various other curious characters.
Just for starters, we get a teacher who has abandoned his wife and kids, a writer in search of a story, a hairdresser who might also be a hooker and a serial killer on the run, and the movie's structure is intricate and clever enough to keep us guessing until almost the last minute as to who's who. Just when we think we have the scenario sussed out, the movie throws us for an elegant loop, its narrative dipping and hiccupping until the characters' identities are revealed to be not at all what we thought.
Ultimately, the velvety red herrings don't provide quite the payoff the movie deserves, but even if Lelouch's film finally reveals itself as something of a soufflé, it's one with heft, an airy batter brushed with goose fat.
Roman de Gare (R) Stars Dominique Pinon, Fanny Ardant, Audrey Dana, Zinedine Soualem and Michele Bernier. Opens July 4 at Tampa Theatre and Burns Court in Sarasota. 4 stars