Claude Lelouch returns with this breezy concoction, a tasty thriller with more Hitchcockian red herrings, blind alleys and methodical set-ups than you will likely see in several recent thrillers put together. Dominique Pinon plays Pierre, a man who just might be or might not be a fugitive from prison, an escaped pedophile and murderer, or perhaps he's a school teacher. Could he possibly be a ghost to famed crime mystery novelist Judith (Fanny Ardent)? What are his motivations in approaching a pretty lady abandoned at a gasoline station by her fiance after a bitter argument? And if he is a pedophile and serial killer, what is he going to do when he meets that lady's young sister? The woman left at the "rest stop," as she calls it, is Huguette, played with a kind of seductive sublimity by Audrey Dana.
After meeting, being taken for a long ride with and enjoying the company of Pierre, Huguette decides to have him do her a favor. Since you like impersonating other people, she says, after he's told her a seemingly all-too-fanciful story about being the ghostwriter for the famous French author Judith, only to state that what he has told her is untrue, why not impersonate her fiance for the consumption of her family? Her folks are expecting her and a doctor she's engaged to, but they do not know what he looks like. Going to a country home and farm, where pigs are killed for dinner, Pierre seems to take up the entire impersonation as an elaborate challenge, changing himself only enough to be believed as Huguette's fiance.
This is all flashback. The film's true opening is of Judith being interrogated by a detective (Zinedine Soualem) about a disappearance and/or murder. Who's been murdered? Who disappeared? And why? The basic hook of the film is this incredibly brief interrogation scene, shortly followed by her relating a story of being in the wine country in the pursuit of research as she desires to write a novel set in that region. Much later, we will learn more about this trip. The film repeatedly and joyously entices the viewer with apparent answers, or pieces of them, either to abandon them like the fiance driving off in anger after an acrimonious verbal fight, or to finally return to them, giving full life to the little details like blowing up small airless balloons, penultimately enlarged and then, finally, tied up.
The three pivotal performances, by Pinon, Dana and Ardent, are all carefully attuned to the screenplay that spawned them. Lelouch doubtless has instructed each of them to play their roles with equal measures understatement and fierceness. Pinon, who is certainly the "lead," sharing a great deal of screen time with the two vastly different women, is the most purely knowing, and it works all the more because of it. He has the charm and disarming qualities of a raffish but sweet-natured fellow while occasionally giving subtle signs of possessing the intellectually cat-and-mouse determination of some sort of miscreant. If his character is Judith's ghost--no revealing here--it makes sense. His is a mercurial demeanor and being, and its varying layers of intrigue are the most compulsive aspect of the entire enterprise.
"Roman de Gare" evidently means something loosely translated as "an airport novel," fiction that is infectiously addictive but fundamentally shallow. Also translated as "pulp fiction," it does share an understanding with Quentin Tarantino that an audience wants to see how the traps and rigors of life ensnare characters on a more immediately important plane. In Pulp Fiction, Vincent could have followed his friend's path and left the employment of Marcellus Wallace, but not believing Jules' ostensible superstitious streak after narrowly living after being shot at repeatedly at dangerously close range, he himself is gunned down by Butch. In Roman de Gare, however, things operate less at a character-driven level of completely engrossing "pulp fiction," and more like a Swiss watch with characters frequently fulfilling plot demands whenever called upon do so. Tarantino and Lelouch are different beasts, with one interested in the nuances of his troubled characters, both "good" and "bad," while Lelouch's films typically work like puzzles in which we belatedly find out just who is "good" and "bad." Godard's insistence on form seems to motivate Lelouch while the French Nouvelle Vague militant's unbridled interest in what drives evidently self-destructive people to be the way they are strikes Tarantino's fancy.
Like Hitchcock, too, Lelouch enjoys playing games with the audience. Sometimes these knotty, labyrinthine constructs work like the aforementioned Swiss watch, and sometimes they fall apart. Roman de Gare's insights into human behavior are not in the least bit groundbreaking--indeed, at least occasionally the film is maddeningly blind to the deeper truths of characters, like Pierre's unfulfilled sister, who winds up with Soualem's detective after regularly meeting with him in the search for her missing husband--but few ever read airport fiction in the quest for deep humanist shadings. Lelouch, in this sense, is simply a more minor, more easily "read" auteur than the slightly related Hitchcock and Tarantino. Yet he knows what he does well, and Roman de Gare is a case of him having a blast, both flummoxing and inverting our expectations with the characters, giving "reveals" such as the fate of the escaped pedophilic serial killer--is he and Pierre the same person or are they not?--like a songwriter kept rapt with his newest lyrical undertaking.
Deliberately fugacious in its afterglow, then (why else give your film the apparently unpretentious, possibly base title "Airport Fiction"?), Roman de Gare asks nothing much more than our complete attention, cheerfully asking us to decode it as it progresses. There's a reason why Pierre is given the attribute of being a magician whose tricks easily entertain and distract children and it goes beyond possibly being a disgusting pedophile: it's a metaphorical talent that practically begs for the spectator to attempt to decipher just how the magician is trying to fool you with his sleight of hand. Lelouch's trick is not entirely original but it's done with such charisma and panache that it nevertheless captures our interest, encouraging us to look ahead to the next scene, like a tricky and clever writer making us want to flip the page to see what happens next.