In her 59th year, Fanny Ardant still manages to smolder with what can only be described as a richly decadent sexuality. In recent films like 8 Women and the “Pigalle” segment of Paris je T’aime, she seemed to sway into rooms on high heels, as much occupied by desire as commanding it-even reducing the imperious Catherine Deneuve into sucking face on the undignified ground. Here, we get to watch her seduce a man probably half her age; a smart man nonetheless incapable of resisting her obvious spell is drawn helplessly into a wicked parlor. Who would cast stones? It’s unparalleled in American movies, where actresses rarely survive their second decade screen life. Sadly, though, it’s one of the few real jolts you’re likely to experience in this cozy mystery from the New Wave-lite director Claude (A Man and a Woman) Lelouch.
Mysteries usually hinge on surprise answers to identity questions. Characters are not what they seem, and the sweetest protagonists turn out to have the darkest hearts. Watching these sudden role reversals makes us almost inexplicably happy. By rights, then, we should feel bliss watching Roman de Gare, where nothing is what it appears to be. We meet each character in contexts that suggest truly sinister motives: a possible child molester, a prostitute visiting her family, a famous writer discovered as a sexy fraud.
But the casting underscores these deceptions; with the gargoyle-esque Dominique Pinon (who you might remember from films like Delicatessen or Alien: Resurrection) contrasted against Ardant’s beauty and the relatively innocent-seeming Audrey Dana, who plays the gold-hearted whore. It all unfolds against a soft background of French countryside, sparkling seas, and spotless roadside rest stops.
By the end of the film, you are likely to have guessed the surprise, making this a mystery in reverse: The story builds toward bourgeois comforts. The title implies light entertainment, and it’s nice. But you can’t help thinking that the prelude promised more and that any film employing a weapon as potent as Fanny Ardant in the early scenes shouldn’t just throw away all that rich decadence on something flimsy like true love.