House of Cards
Claude Lelouch Dashes Off A Thrilling Mystery--Even If It Doesn't Add Up To Much
Why Fanny Ardant isn't as renown as France's other beguilingly beautiful over-50 actress, Catherine Deneuve, boggles the mind. Perhaps it has to do with the roles Ardant plays--a possibly murderous woman in 1983's Confidentially Yours, a scheming noblewoman in 1996's Ridicule. She excels in these duplicitous roles, her refined beauty contrasting sharply with the sometimes fiendish plotting going on behind her disarming eyes.
Writer/director Claude Lelouch harnesses Ardant's elegant shiftiness in his wonderful new thriller Roman de Gare. Lelouch is a perennially sidelined 1960s French filmmaker, not tied into the New Wave. He was not as political as Jean-Luc Godard, not as autobiographically candid as François Truffaut (Ardant's partner in the early 1980s), not as Hitchcockian as Claude Chabrol, not as patiently intelligent as Eric Rohmer, and not as formally mercurial as Jacques Rivette. Lelouch was a more conventional, fluffy filmmaker--his big hit during that decade was 1966's widely adored romance A Man and a Woman--a sensibility that made him ideal for such epic old-fashioned movies as 1974's And Now My Love and 1995's Les Misérables.
Lelouch doesn't so much learn new tricks for the dizzying Roman de Gare as merely work the thriller as competently as he has other conventional stories. Ardant's Judith Ralitzer is a celebrity novelist riding the wave of her latest success, even though she's being interrogated by the police about two possible murders as the movie opens. It's the first of many moments of conflicting misdirection that Lelouch drops into his credit sequence, which also throws in a serial child rapist's escape from a Parisian prison, a woman whose husband has been missing for three days, and an engaged couple heading to the countryside to meet her parents. Actors, crew, and producers show up on title cards through this sequence, and just when you think they're over, and after a considerable period of exposition, more title cards intrude on the story. It's a sly joke--and an indication that Lelouch doesn't want you to assume anything about what's to follow. He's got a few tricks up his sleeve.
And so does that escaped pedophile, whose signature is to make contact with his victims by using magic tricks. A curious stranger (Delicatessen's Dominique Pinon) does just that at a highway gas stop, offering a young girl a bouquet of flowers he pulls from his sleeve. As the girl and her family leave, he spots Huguette (Audrey Dana) and Paul (Cyrille Eldin), the engaged couple, who pull up in the middle of a heated fight. Paul drives off, abandoning her, and the stranger offers her a ride, which she reluctantly accepts.
En route, they tell each other a few stories. She's a former hairdresser from a small town near the Alps who escaped to Paris, he's the ghost writer for the famous Judith Ralitzer--or just a guy who ran away from his wife three days ago in Paris. Like Huguette, we don't know for sure who he is, but he's amiable enough for her to ask him a favor--if he'd like to pretend to be her fiancé for a day just to satisfy her parents.
And so Lelouch sets in motion this twisty, time-jumping, and identity-crossing tale. The delight is not so much in stylish execution but in what Lelouch chooses to leave out and let you assume. Is this stranger, who introduces himself to Huguette's parents as Louis, the escaped pedophile? You don't know for sure, but you don't like it one bit when he goes off trout fishing with Huguette's teenaged daughter, and all you hear on the soundtrack are the farm's pigs being led to the slaughter.
Roman de Gare is riddled with such plain-spoken moments of quiet tension, and throughout Lelouch plays it very close to his vest, even if the plot lines do start to double back on one another (Judith does have a ghost writer; Huguette is hiding secrets of her own) as the plot widens to include a yacht trip from Cannes to Elba and back and a never-ending series of fabulous ensembles for Ardant. If the ultimate resolution turns to out to be less fulfilling than the adventure to get there, that's only because card tricks are only fun as long as you don't know how they work. And Lelouch spends most of this movie setting up a doozie of sleight-of-hand storytelling only to reveal the deck was loaded all along.