Yippee-Yi-Aye, Yippee-Yi-Oh, Ghost Writers in the Brine
Roman de Gare / Nathaniel Rogers
Film Reviews | May 21, 2008 | Comments ()
It’s too bad you can’t shove a new theatrical release into your beach bag, as if it were a well-worn paperback. If you’re in the mood for such a read, the twisty new French thriller Roman de Gare would look great next to your bottle of sunscreen and towels. From your sandy spot, you could imagine yourself on the well-appointed yacht where the climax takes place. Your beachfront could become Cannes with just a little shove of your imagination. In a delightful though probably accidental coincidence, Roman de Gare is playing in theaters just as the Cannes Film Festival is in full swing.
Claude Lelouch, the 70-year-old writer-director behind Roman de Gare is a Cannes regular. It’s been a long time since his heyday when he won the Palme D’Or, Golden Globe and Oscar (all for 1966’s A Man and a Woman), but he’s still got surprises up his sleeve. In fact — or purposeful fiction, to be more precise — when Roman de Gare first screened for Cannes consideration last year, his name wasn’t on it. He was working under a pseudonym, an impish if artistically driven choice: He wanted people to judge the film as a film rather than as “a Lelouch.”
I share the amusing anecdote because it’s an appropriate bit of mischief for a film that is, to some extent, about the mysteries of authorship. Lelouch drops us into the film right near its climax. (He even uses a color-filtered lens. They always signal ‘another time period right here!’) We’re in a police office, and the famous mystery novelist Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant) is being interviewed about the alleged murder of her ghostwriter. She claims innocence. It was a simple drowning: Her ghostwriter couldn’t swim!
It’s hard to get one’s bearings during the extended prologue as we jump around between several characters and backward to the story’s origins. The cinematography features abundant shots through windows, glass or screens, and the editing favors long, slow dissolves between scenes so you begin to wonder if you’re actually within a story (the book itself?) as opposed to outside of its creation. Judith’s latest bestseller, the book within the film, is called God, the Other, and when she’s arrested it has recently debuted to rave reviews. Very soon the movie abruptly changes course to lead us back to the film’s true lead, Pierre (the drowned ghostwriter?), played by Dominique Pinon.
If you don’t know that name, you’ll surely recognize its owner’s familiar squished face. Pinon has been used to great effect in a number of legendary French movies including Diva, Betty Blue, Delicatessen, and Amélie. Pierre is a mystery for the film’s first few reels. Is he the missing husband of a woman visiting the police daily? Is he the pederast serial killer we keep hearing about on the radio? Is he the novelist’s ghostwriter, as he claims? Or is he more than one of those things? None? Pinon proves wonderfully dexterous with a character that has to remain open to different interpretations. Matching him scene for scene in the first act, through a large range of tones from comedy through domestic drama to thriller, is the superb Audrey Dana (nominated for a French Oscar for this performance). She plays the neurotic hairdresser Huguette. Pierre picks her up after she has been unceremoniously dumped by her fiancé on their road trip to meet her parents. For all of the movie’s busy little mysteries, none are as effective or surprising as the magic trick these two actors pull off in tandem. Pinon somehow fashions Pierre into something like a Mr. Right as a romantic subplot develops, all while still juggling the less savory possibilities of who he might really be. Huguette’s dangerously fluid, naturalistic playing aids him considerably in the effect.
If you’re never quite sure who anyone is or quite what they’re up to in the first half, it’s readily apparent that Lelouch is purposefully keeping you on the edge and out of the loop. He spreads red herrings throughout the picture, some of which he resolves quickly and others which he allows to linger. He’s out to have fun with pulpy genre tropes, but the question is: How much fun is the audience having? Ultimately, there was enough, especially in the film’s first half, when Huguette and Pierre perform their odd courtship full of role-playing, secrets, and lies. There’s lots of lurid stuff around the edges of Roman de Gare: serial killers, prostitution, pederasty, animal slaughter, murders … but Lelouch proves only a tease. Roman de Gare isn’t especially lurid or juicy in actual content. Yet despite its messy plotting — some characters disappear for long stretches, even ones who shouldn’t, like Judith — it’s curiously gripping, never moreso than when we’re in Huguette’s humble world.
Unfortunately, Huguette is abandoned as we move toward the more moneyed world aboard Judith Ralitzer’s yacht. Roman de Gare’s second act pits Pierre against Judith as he struggles to finish her next novel. I half expected the movie to go completely haywire as it neared its conclusion, a la Adaptation (another psychologically twisty movie about writers), but Roman de Gare gets more muted rather than more outré as it sails. The great Ardant, with those sparkling eyes that are just a little too close and that glamorous bone structure that’s just a little too hard, seems at first an ideal choice to play a dangerous, glamorous pulp writer, but her charisma is wasted here, or perhaps her performance is a misfire. One expects Judith to prove a formidable adversary, but Ardant plays so many scenes in gradations of something like a wine daze that it’s impossible to get a bead on who Judith really is, even though she’s technically the least mysterious character. Pierre may be the ghostwriter, but Judith is more spectral.
Roman de Gare is a little insubstantial itself, but who needs a beach read to be weighty? You read it to pass the time while you lounge in the sun. I’d probably jump on this Fanny Ardant yacht again. Dominique Pinon does the steering, anyway.
Nathaniel Rogers is a freelance writer in New York City. He is older than Penelope Cruz and younger than Nicole Kidman but ought never to be confused with Tom Cruise. He blogs daily at The Film Experience.