Roman de Gare (Cross Tracks) (France, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The term "Hitchcockian" has become overused in recent years, but here is a movie to which it deserves to be applied. Roman de Gare is the most recent motion picture from veteran French director Claude Lelouch, and it's easily his best work in over a decade. Since the release of 1995's Les Miserables, Lelouch's star has taken a mighty tumble; this could be the movie to re-invigorate the 70-year old filmmaker's reputation. As thrillers go, Roman de Gare is twisty, smartly written, and immensely satisfying. It's the kind of motion picture that understands the audience's expectations and delights in playing with them. The film dances and teases and turns, sometimes taking us where we expect to go but often enjoying our bafflement. Yet, as obtuse as the movie may seem 20 minutes into the proceedings, this is not designed to frustrate through a lack of resolution. By the time the end credits roll, all has been revealed and explained.

The film opens by introducing several apparently unrelated characters although, as implied by the title, their tracks will cross. Author Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant) has just released a bestselling novel called God, the Other, when the police bring her in for questioning in association with two murders. As she tells her story "from the beginning," there's a flashback to the time when she met her husband-to-be while doing research for one of her potboilers - a thriller about terrorists assassinating the President of the United States with poisoned Burgundy.

Next we gaze through the front windshield of a speeding car as the radio informs us that the dangerous pedophile rapist serial killer "The Magician" (so known because he performs a trick for his victims before attacking them) has escaped from prison. Next we're introduced to Pierre Laclos (Dominique Pinon), who has driven through a storm to a highway rest stop. He goes inside and performs a trick for a little girl. Meanwhile, Huguette (Audrey Dana) has been abandoned at the rest stop by her boyfriend, who's tired of arguing with her. Pierre comes to her rescue, offering her a ride - after he does a card trick for her. Alone and desperate, she relents and gets into Pierre's car. They trade stories about their lives, but who really is Pierre? The father who has run off from his wife and children? The ghost writer whose story was stolen by Judith Ralitzer and called God, the Other? Or the mysterious and vile serial killer?

It's impossible to express the beauty of the plot's construction without revealing surprises that should not be discussed in a review. Suffice it to say that Lelouch has massaged things in such a way that the seams disappear and, especially in retrospect, everything makes sense. In a way, the movie is almost like the fusion of two separate but related stories. The first is primarily flashbacks setting up the second. There's more suspense and intrigue in the initial 60 minutes than in the closing 40 but, past the break point, the screenplay still has enough to offer to keep viewers interested.

When it comes to Pierre's identity, the movie sets up all three possibilities in parallel and develops each as a viable alternative. Actor Dominique Pinon, know perhaps for his odd features and frequent appearances in Jean-Pierre Jenuet's films, plays it completely straight. It's impossible to tell from his manner who he is. Meanwhile, Lelouch toys with the audience like a cat with a mouse, offering clues that might or might not be legitimate. The truth is there, and it is eventually revealed, but as soon as everything is clear, Lelouch rolls the dice and we're presented with another mystery.

In the 1995 version of Les Miserables, Lelouch explored parallels between art and reality when he has a truck driver, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, save a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied France. The World War II story showed similarities to Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The overall impact was powerful and intriguing. (Sadly, the movie is currently unavailable on Region I DVD.) In Roman de Gare, Lelouch does something similar, once again entwining "fiction" with "reality." God, the Other turns out to be a template of the truth about Pierre and the ramifications of its publication form the backbone of the movie's second half.

Roman de Gare is not a perfect motion picture. Like nearly any thriller, no matter how intelligently and tightly plotted, it is possible to poke holes in its fabric. But, as it's unspooling in the theater, it makes for a wonderful movie house experience. Here's a sleeper worth a few extra miles' travel to see.

Roman de Gare (Cross Tracks) (France, 2007)

Director: Claude Lelouch
Cast: Dominique Pinon, Fanny Ardant, Audrey Dana, Michèle Bernier, Zinedine Soualem
Screenplay: Claude Lelouch, Pierre Uytterhoeven
Cinematography: Gérard de Battista
Music: Alex Jaffray
U.S. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2008-04-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1