A leisurely exercise in love, style - and murder
If the movie contains talk of paradise, vibrating grapes, idle yachting, and a wine glass bobbing in the waters just off the French Riviera, it must be Claude Lelouch. The 70-something director puts us back in luxury's lap with "Roman de Gare," which looks just like the high-roller ads you get in the first 40 pages of Vogue or Vanity Fair but feels vaguely more emotional. Lelouch wants to tie a Hermès scarf around our hearts.
The film begins with a pretentious noir shout-out. The best-selling mystery novelist Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant) is being interrogated for her ghostwriter's murder, filmed in black and white. Innocent or not, the wig she's wearing confers guilt - of looking cheap, at least. Were she a man, we'd have to call the thing a toupee. When she's done talking about this ghostwriter of hers, we back up just far enough to meet him. He's Pierre (Dominique Pinon), a small man with a pushed-in face and great blue eyes.
One evening Pierre picks up Huguette (Audrey Dana), an insecure hairdresser whose fiance has just sped off without her; the couple was on their way from Paris to her large family's farm. Pierre is on his way to Cannes. She asks him to pretend to be her boyfriend, a doctor, to impress her mother, and he agrees. Lelouch handles the scenes of Pierre, Huguette, and her family bonding in their big rustic house with delicacy. Even if you think he's slumming (private boats and vineyards are more his speed), the warmth in those encounters is real.
The back half of the director's career is marked by epic ambitions of varying success. On the one hand, in 1995 he made a gorgeous version of "Les Misérables" that was more a love note to its star, Jean-Paul Belmondo, than a tribute to Victor Hugo's book. On the other hand is the cashmere glove that Lelouch titled "And Now . . . Ladies and Gentlemen," 2002's extravagant wanderlust romance between a thieving Jeremy Irons and half-alive Patricia Kaas. How accidentally hilarious you find it directly correlates to your tax bracket.
"Roman de Gare" gently falls somewhere between the two films. A love story grows out of Pierre and Huguette's arrangement, and these sections of the movie are so good and Pinon and Dana are so striking together (beauty and her pug) that the rest of the film feels like an exercise in style. Lelouch can't be bothered to break a sweat.
When Pierre tells Judith he wants his name on her next book (it being his and all), Lelouch resumes playing with the idea that he's making a murder mystery. The would-be nasty intrigue that bubbles up plays like Claude Chabrol lite.
Lelouch appears to be giving his literary snobbery a mildly enjoyable workout, too. (There he breaks a sweat.) When Judith's back is against the wall, she defends her artistic license by comparing herself with Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Hugo. And the woman rubbing her back aboard her yacht is, hilariously, her "press agent, accountant, and masseuse." (Sue Grafton should be so lucky.) Ardant applies the appropriate hauteur, but not too much. She seems to respect this woman, toupee and all.