Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant), femme fatale and popular writer, is seeking characters for her next best-seller. A serial killer has just escaped from a high-security prison. Huguette (Audrey Dana), a hairdresser in a top Paris salon, is going to change their destiny. Some meetings are more fatal than others...

(This film was released in Australian cinemas as 'Roman de gare')

Sleight-of-hand by a French master.

Claude Lelouch was so fed up with being pilloried by high-minded critics, he made his most recent film, Roman De Gare, under the pseudonym Herve Picard – only revealing his authorship when it premiered at the Cannes festival.

Without being told, Lelouch’s legion of admirers would almost certainly have recognized his trademark blend of suspense and romance, and stories within stories, in the opulent settings of Burgundy wine country and Cannes, and a misty mountain at the foot of the Alps.

While Roman De Gare doesn’t rank among the jewels of the director’s 47-year career, whose high point was the Oscar-winning A Man and a Woman (1966), it’s a clever, engrossing mix of murder mystery and literary puzzle, superbly acted and richly photographed.

The opener introduces best-selling novelist Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant) being interrogated by the cops about her possible links to two deaths. The action then backtracks to four scenarios: an escaped homicidal pedophile who performs magic tricks to lure his victims; a teacher who suddenly abandons his wife and kids; a creepy guy (Dominique Pinon) at a service station who does a trick for a little girl accompanied by her parents; and a man who ditches his neurotic fiancée Huguette (Audrey Dana) at the servo after an argument.

The Pinon character offers Huguette a lift, she reluctantly accepts, then asks him to come with her to her parents’ farm, posing as her doctor boyfriend Paul. He claims to be Ralitzer’s ghost writer but Lelouch introduces enough red herrings to indicate he might be the runaway teacher or even the serial killer.

The elaborate plotting by Lelouch and co-writer Pierre Uytterhoeven may seem confusing at times until all the strands come together neatly. Avoiding spoilers, I won’t reveal the victim or the perpetrators: just let’s say the director keeps the audience guessing until the end.

An unconventional leading man, the pug-faced Pinon (Delicatessen, Amelie) is terrific as the enigmatic central character. Ardant brings both gravity and humour to the troubled novelist for whom life doesn’t go as she would have scripted. Huguette is a bundle of rage, insecurity and low self-esteem, but Dana succeeds in making her very sympathetic. Skimpy extras include the theatrical trailer and selected scenes.