Smarting from the critical and commercial failure of his two-thirds-completed "La Genre humain" trilogy, director Claude Lelouch (A Man And A Woman) premièred Roman De Gare under a pseudonym, a fitting debut for a movie that is rife with deception onscreen and off. Oozing brittle hauteur, Fanny Ardant plays an author of glossy thrillers who has just released her first literary novel. But as Ardant savors the praise of critics, Lelouch cuts away to an encounter between a distraught woman (Audrey Dana) whose fiancé has just dumped her by the side of the road,† and a man (Dominique Pinon) who claims to be Ardant's long-term ghostwriter.


In Roman De Gare, no one is who they say they are, and identities are picked up and discarded as the need arises. Without withdrawing the possibility that Pinon is who he claims, Lelouch also stirs up suspicion that he may be an escaped serial killer known as the Magician, who lures his teenage victims with magic tricks, or a Parisian schoolteacher who has abruptly deserted his family—or, perhaps, some combination of all three. While the audience is hunting for clues to Pinon's identity, Dana enlists him to pose as her estranged husband-to-be, adding yet another layer of deceit. Even the pun-riddled dialogue does double duty, although much of the wordplay is lost in translation. (Ardant's literate thriller is called Dieu Est Un Autre, a strained pun on Rimbaud.)

Shuffling storylines and shifting time frames, Lelouch empties out his bag of tricks, hoping viewers will be so entranced by his misdirections that they won't notice the occasional cheat. But the movie's bubbly charms start to fizzle as the layers peel back. Lelouch is fine as long as he keeps his hands moving, but at the final flourish, he has nothing up his sleeves. Roman De Gare's neatest trick is Pinon's performance, which draws out a hitherto unseen leading-man allure. Pinon's oversize features have long been a boon to filmmakers with a love of the grotesque (see: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who has yet to make a feature without him). Here, Pinon runs with the chance to play against type, letting his past catalogue of freaks and madmen fill in the underlying sense of unease. At this point, the strangest thing he can do is play normal.