In an age of predictable and no-thrills thrillers, "Roman de Gare" comes on like gangbusters - a super smart, spectacularly plotted mystery overflowing with rich characters and oodles of ambiguity.
It's the 49th film from veteran French director Claude Lelouch, known in the U.S. for his mid-'60s hit "A Man and a Woman," and it may be his best.
Unfortunately, it's hard to say a lot about the movie without giving away too much. We shall step lightly.
In the opening sequence a glamorous 50-something woman, Judith (Fanny Ardant), faces the camera and answers questions from an unseen police detective. We gather that someone in her employ has died, and she's suspected of murder. From her demeanor we realize she's probably rich and famous and used to being celebrated, not interrogated.
Then Lelouch flashes back (just a few days) to Judith on a French TV program that specializes in interviewing writers. She's answering questions about her new novel, just the latest in a series of huge best-sellers.
All this is a setup for the body of the film, which takes place a year earlier.
In a busy highway rest stop, an odd-looking fellow sips from a cup of vending machine coffee and observes the comings and goings of other travelers. A TV announcer reports that a notorious sex murderer has escaped from prison, a fellow infamous for using magic tricks to lure his young victims.
No sooner have we absorbed this information than the coffee drinker stops a young girl and her parents and magically produces a bouquet of flowers for the little cutie.
Hmmm ... escaped sex criminal ... magic tricks ... do we have a winner?
Well, that's what's so wonderful about this movie and about its central performance. The amateur magician, Pierre, is played by Dominique Pinon, a short, scrunch-faced actor known for eccentric character roles in such films as "Delicatessen," "Alien: Resurrection" and "Diva" (he was the mysterious killer). But here Pinon tackles a role of astounding subtlety, all the while dancing around our expectations.
Next Pierre overhears an argument between a good-looking couple. When the man drives off, leaving the woman (Audrey Dana) stranded, Pierre offers to give her a ride in his car. Eventually she agrees.
Lelouch's screenplay is a small masterpiece of suggestion and retreat. Every major character is not precisely what he or she appears to be; they've all got secrets that break loose at critical moments.
"Roman de Gare" has been brilliantly acted. Pinon accomplishes the near impossible by making us adore Pierre even as we're suspicious of him. It's hard to make audiences care about enigmatic characters, but Pinon pulls it off. He gives us plenty to like but keeps just enough in reserve that Pierre remains a deliberately vague presence. Good guy? Maniac? Maybe a bit of both?
Dana, who was nominated for a French Oscar for her work here, is a revelation as well. Her Huguette makes one bad decision after another, yet Dana suggests substance beneath the flightiness and more intelligence than she gives herself credit for.
And Ardant, long one of France's great actresses, seems born to play the part of the haughty Judith.