Alternate Title: Crossed Tracks
Director: Claude Lelouch
In his frequent comical plugs for his book I Am America and So Can You, Stephen Colbert jokes—and I’m paraphrasing-- that if you make your first work good enough, you don’t have to complete another. And although it wasn’t his first release, essentially the same could be said for writer/director Claude Lelouch, whose landmark 1966 film A Man and a Woman has become synonymous with his name, earning him honors from around the globe including the Cannes Film Festival and our very own Academy Awards.
Sort of a pre-Love Story for international art house viewers, A Man and a Woman, while being stylistically impressive seemed to be a larger hit with audiences and in the same turn, one prone to far more critical evaluations by scholars who have since labeled Lelouch a “middlebrow” (Ebert) and others who felt it was derivative of far superior French New Wave works, repackaged without passion for the masses. Still, it’s a gorgeous work with a sweeping score instantly recognizable after only a few notes and a film that-- despite a few intermittent hits here and there-- Lelouch has never been able to top. It's also one that he continually references on some level (whether conscious or not) throughout his oeuvre dominated by works about the inexhaustible dramatic implications between the genders both in terms of the plot and titles, such as Lelouch’s uninspired film And Now… Ladies and Gentlemen, which nearly put me to sleep after just twenty minutes.
Given to complicated, taut spider web like narratives that seem to weave over one another, going back and forth before finally freeing the viewer to create any sort of linear plotline that will fit, Lelouch has released his most exciting work in years with Roman de Gare. While it still harkens back to his commercial version of the New Wave in terms of style, it seems to be taking a page out of the playbook of fellow French New Wave Hitchcock devotee Claude Chabrol. Nobody builds a vaguer sense of impending doom better than Chabrol and Lelouch channels him to great effect right from the start as we meet our three main characters whose lives intersect throughout the film like travelers switching trains or as the title so beautifully translates, Crossed Tracks.
No stranger to French noir from her work with past masters including a delightful turn for Francois Truffaut in Confidentially Yours, actress Fanny Ardant portrays bestselling mystery author Judith Ralitzer whom we first see in two locations as she discusses her latest novel and is also brought in for questioning in regards to the disappearance of her rumored ghost writer. As the possible writer Dominique Pinon (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) gives the film’s very best and most subtle performance in his role as Pierre Laclos who first crosses paths with neurotic Huguette (Cesar nominated newcomer Audrey Dana), a stranded, high-strung hairdresser whose fiancé dumps her after a horrible argument while en route to meet her family. Out of equal parts chivalry, pity, boredom and fascination, Pierre offers Huguette a ride and soon establishes such a rapport with the perfect stranger that she enlists his help in pretending to be her fiancé. While in the hands of most, this set up would traditionally lead to light-hearted romantic comedy wherein the two predictably fall in love, Lelouch instead seasons his tale with danger and intrigue in the form of overlapping plotlines chronicling the escape of a serial killing magician from prison who pulls murder instead of rabbits out of a hat and the search for a missing schoolteacher who's disappeared without a trace.
Visually impressive from the get-go with the double exposure of two completely different reels of film to introduce both the prisoner’s escape as well as a man driving at night, Lelouch’s stunning film photographed by Gerarde de Battista and edited by Charlotte Lecoeur and Stephane Mazalaigue never fails to create a mood that’s the most effective in a creepy sequence at Huguette’s family’s farm tinged by Lelouch and company with shades of Deliverance. Admittedly the final twist is fairly obvious to predict given the film’s slower pacing near the conclusion which loses a bit of the intrigue when Pinon is reacquainted with Ardant and the film becomes less Chabrol and more Sirk tinged melodrama. This being said, Gare holds up particularly well in post-film discussion when you realize the amount of truth mixed in with the lies as expressed by the characters and deduce with dismay that some of the earliest clues were hiding in plain sight, making Lelouch and not the film's serial killer, the magician we’re the most consumed by in Roman de Gare.