Opening this week: Take a ride with 'Roman de Gare'

Claude Lelouch heads off in a dark and weird - and even humorous - direction in this literate mystery.

"Roman De Gare" * * * Directed by Claude Lelouch. Written by Lelouche and Pierre Uytterhoeven. English title: Crossed Tracks, Hebrew title: Hitzalvut. 103 minutes. In French, with Hebrew and English titles. With Fanny Ardant, Dominique Pinon, Audrey Dana, Michele Bernier, Myriam Boyer, Zinedine Soualem Veteran French director Claude Lelouch - best known for the classic 1966 romance A Man and a Woman - is back with Roman de Gare. It's a mystery filled with twists, at times surprising as it plays wild games with our loyalty to its characters, and at other moments stagy and melodramatic. It's as if the director wanted to go out on a limb, then pulled himself back, afraid to go too far in a weird direction. Still, whether he's taking risks or being conventional, Lelouch is a master storyteller and mixes a surprising amount of comedy with the drama as he leads us exactly where he wants us to go. The more interesting sections of the film are when we haven't yet learned who the main character, Pierre (played by Dominique Pinon), really is. As he drives out of Paris and through the French countryside, listening to the radio, the music station interrupts its broadcast to announce that a notorious serial killer has just escaped from prison. Known as "the Magician," he lures his victims by performing magic tricks for them - which is just what Pierre, who goes by several names during the film, does for a pretty little girl traveling with her parents that he meets at a rest stop. There, his destiny intersects with that of Hughette (Audrey Dana), an attractive but confused young woman traveling to her home in the Alps to introduce her fiancé to her parents. When the fiancé drives off in her car and with her purse, Pierre is there to console her and, reluctantly, she agrees to accept a ride with him. In the course of that drive, she reveals that she is a Parisian hairdresser, and that the runaway fiancé was a doctor who tried (and utterly failed) to cure her of her smoking addiction. She admits she is an "airhead" who is star struck around celebrities, and claims she washed Princess Diana's hair the night before she died. Pierre tells her he is the ghostwriter for the famous crime novelist Judith Ralitzer, then says he isn't. Enjoying their rapport and wondering who he really is, the young hairdresser asks the older, graying man if he will pose as her fiancé at her parents' home and. He agrees, but as she invites him into her family's secluded house, it's hard to think about anything but one question: Is he the Magician? The suspense builds slowly, as the director and the Pinon character play all kinds of tricks on us. Although Hughette warns Pierre that her mother, a religious Christian, will ask him right away whether he believes in God and that he must say yes, he has a little fun by giving a Jewish name. This clearly isn't ideal in the mother's eyes, but she tries to conceal her discomfort, merely asking whether he eats pork, since she has plans to slaughter a pig for lunch. This is only one of Pierre's games, but there will be others. Meanwhile, a woman in Paris (Michele Bernier) goes to the police to report the sudden disappearance of her husband, a high school teacher who may or may not be Pierre. Suspense is a critical element in the plot, so it's hard to say much more about the film without spoiling the fun. If only Lelouch had kept us hanging longer than he does! The most nagging questions are cleared up abruptly about halfway through the film. Fanny Ardant appears as the chilly and arrogant Judith Ralitzer, who finds herself accused of a crime in the film's framing device. Her part is not especially subtle, but the actress looks fantastic as she plays a diabolical ice princess. Her acting seems out of kilter with the more subtle performances by Audrey Dana as the troubled hairdresser and the masterful Dominique Pinon as a man who is alternately clownish, endearing and menacing. Although it's not a groundbreaking film, it's always nice to see a literate movie about writers. I especially enjoyed the scenes in which a writer works on a yacht, sipping champagne, enjoying the sun and the breeze. It sure beats a battered cubicle. This movie will make you long for a streamlined laptop, a lovely boat and a good bottle of wine.