'Roman de Gare" is French for "train station novel" -- one of those books, usually a romance or thriller, that passengers pick up, read and forget about by the end of the ride. Claude Lelouch's film shares similar characteristics.
The film stars Fanny Ardant as Judith, a crime novelist accused of murder. The story starts with a Paris detective grilling her about the disappearance of her personal assistant Pierre Laclos (Dominique Pinon, who usually plays the odd, slightly creepy guy in French art films such as "Amelie"), who was last seen alive on Judith's yacht.
The movie transitions to an extended flashback where news has just broken about an escaped serial killer. This child rapist performs magic acts for his victims before he molests and kills them. We are led to believe this killer is Pierre as we watch him pick up an abandoned young woman, Huguette (Audrey Dana), at a rest stop.
Here is where everything stops making sense. Huguette and Paul form a rapport on the long car ride. He confesses that he is Judith's ghostwriter and personal assistant, but soon admits that he was lying for fun. He is actually a schoolteacher trying to escape a banal home life.
Never miss a local story.
She then stupidly asks this master of disguises to pretend to be her doctor-fiance while on a visit to her family. (Her real fiancé is the one who abandoned her at the rest stop.)
The visit, which takes up a quarter of the film, reaches the height of domestic comedy with an absurd combination of sexual and familial antics.
Because we don't know who Paul really is, though, the visit has dark undertones, especially during one anxiety-driven scene between Huguette's teenage daughter and Paul.
This is part of the enjoyment of the thriller. Paul could be a murderer dubbed "The Magician," a ghostwriter for a famous author or a schoolteacher on the run. All three identities seem plausible for a while, and it isn't until the end that Lelouch unravels his trick on the audience.
The movie isn't particularly logical, but the narrative remains compelling in large part because of the mystifying Pierre, whose magic tricks and eerie quips command our attention.
Ardant plays the confident popular novelist as a picture of old-money elegance with a dash of suspicious seduction. Lelouch takes a flimsy plot and strengthens it with psychological drama between actors and grandiose shots of the French Alps.
"Roman de Gare" never reaches to the climax we expect and want from its comic middle. But the pulp fiction doesn't ask us to do anything more than understand the meaning behind its namesake.