Sometimes, it's comforting to be in the hands of a master. Simultaneously an homage and sly send-up of Hitchcock's work, French New Wave vet Claude Lelouch (now 70) lends a confident and deft touch to Roman de Gare, a clever thriller that keeps you guessing but doesn't have quite the punch and resonance you might hope for.

The film's title is the French equivalent to "airport novel," those pulpy potboilers you devour between connecting flights and trips to the bathroom. And so we are quickly introduced to a trio of stories that may or may not be connected. The first concerns famous novelist Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant), who, while celebrating the critical success of her latest and greatest work of fiction, is taken into police custody for murder. The second focuses on a neurotic Parisian hairdresser named Huguette (the lovely Audrey Dana) who's left stranded at a gas station after a vicious argument with her fiance. There she meets a mysterious fellow (Dominique Pinon) who tries to cheer her up with magic tricks. He offers her a ride and the two become entwined in unexpected ways. The third's the story of a woman searching for her missing husband who falls in love with the detective on her case. Overshadowing all three tales is news that "The Magician," a notorious serial killer known for charming young women with magic tricks before murdering them, has escaped from prison.

As far as setups go, Roman de Gare is as good as it gets, drawing you in and toying with your suspicions. Lelouch and his screenwriter Pierre Uytterhoeven keep the guessing game moving for more than half the film, leaving us to wonder who's who and what's fact or fiction. The threads are deviously slippery and Pinon is perfect as the man whose motives are never clear. Leave it to the French to make this odd little actor a star. As the punk villain in Diva, the hapless hero in Delicatessen or a ridiculous lover in Amelie, Pinon's rubbery face can convey clown-like humor or deep wells of empathy. Dana and Ardant are equally mesmerizing as two sides of the feminine coin; one nervous but empathetic, the other serene and dangerous — both sexy in that very French way.

Similarly, Lelouch's filmmaking is first-rate. Despite his middlebrow pedigree (Les Miserables, A Man and a Woman), he proves nimble and unpretentious, letting cinematographer Gérard de Battista compose scrumptious visuals while jazzing up the narrative with a few kinetically surreal sequences. The approach he takes with each plot thread is hardly unique, yet the sum total's entertaining and fresh. An opening high-speed rush through Parisian streets into the suburbs as seen through a car's windshield, for instance, is nothing new, but Lelouch lets it go on so long you become both entranced and intrigued.

Ultimately, Roman de Gare is the kind of trippy art-house thriller that double-crosses itself over and over again, forcing us to continually reassess what we've seen, but doesn't have the balls to truly mess with our heads. Lelouch has delivered two-thirds of a great movie, one that's compulsively entertaining for most of its running time but builds to a toothless conclusion. And while there's an undeniable pleasure to being willfully misled, the best examples of the genre — Se7en, Fight Club, Memento, The Usual Suspects, Angel Heart — are not only vicious in the way they thwart audience expectations, they are merciless in their conclusions. Lelouch's alternative realities and yo-yoing back and forth through time all come together to make sense but they disappoint in the end. He's missing the one necessary ingredient to turn his clever-for-cleverness'-sake film into a true classic: sadism.

Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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