Perhaps the most identifiable difference between an artistic film and one made with primarily commercial ends in mind is character development. After all, life is short and we really cannot afford to get to know too many people in great depth, lest we pass up other opportunities and other people. This silly paradigm has plagued all forms of artistic expression since their inceptions, a parallel and quick-fix alternative to a true masterpiece. Whereas the latter takes its time to talk about a few things, most commercial outings superficially touch on everything and everyone under the glorious and beneficent star we call the sun. In this regard, French cinema, to use a casual generalization, tends to be particularly offensive. French film is all about doing little and saying even less, of blustering about petty details in an urban sprawl that has already jaded every personage to varying degrees. Indeed, for that sweltering mass among us (I happily have never been a joiner) who needs action, explosions, preposterous plots and characters that could not, on this planet or any other, possibly exist without collapsing under the weight of their own disingenuity, the French noir, neo-noir, and B-noir are to be avoided like the misanthropic types who compose these works. Which brings us to this recently released film.
Some reviewers have translated the title as "airport fiction," or what you would buy in an airport before a long trip, a cultural equivalent albeit liberated from the play on words. As it were, the best translation of “train station novel” or "train station fiction" (as in a pack of lies) is suggested in the dialogues; why its own subtitles refer to the book and film which contains it as “Tracks” is not ours to know (the American name “Crossed Tracks” is a bit more implicational if equally inaccurate). Unlike most films of its kind, Roman de gare introduces us to a large slew of characters before focusing on three: Pierre Laclos (Dominique Pinon), Huguette (Audrey Dana), and the epicenter herself, Judith Ralitzer (the ageless Fanny Ardent). Who these people really are becomes the true mystery of the film, and each one of them has at least two identities to hide behind. Identities, mind you, not in the secret agent sense, but as distinct slices of the same personality. Being the (somewhat diminutive) man in this threesome, Laclos also appears to be the most enigmatic, and he may very well have the wherewithal to prove it. If you believe what he has to say, he has been ghosting for Ralitzer, a novelist of millions and millions of accolades, for the past seven years. One note to the politically correct: the unfortunate French term for “ghost writer” (also present in other European languages) is used in a pun for the period of, ahem, indentured servitude that Laclos apparently took upon himself before deciding his talents had been concealed for far too long. The term crops up a good three dozen times in the film, so however often you sneer, it’s not going away.
That is, of course, if you buy Laclos’s story (and if that is his real name). There are other possible façades. These include Huguette’s actual line of work and strange obsession with celebrity hair, as well as her bucolic family living in the true middle of the middle of nowhere, where trout fishing and pig slaughtering are major events. Alas and alack, we are also supposed to revel in the lurking presence of an escaped serial killer, which has quietly become the biggest cliché in thriller fiction. I will generously impute this ranking to our age-old need to find and combat evil in its purest form. Once upon a time we had Old Nick; now we have salivating monsters who take days to murder their victims by the most macabre and revolting methods ever devised. As it were, our killer, whose name is George, likes magic tricks. He uses them to enthrall his adolescent victims and has even been dubbed “The Magician” by the ever-imaginative press. And Pierre − small, inefficacious, sexually ambiguous Pierre − just so happens to carry a pack of trick cards around.
What is particularly good about films like these is precisely what is lacking in more action-based variants. The twists do not make the characters; instead, the characters remain in the personas that have been developed for them and make decisions based on what we know of these personas. If we are really surprised by what happens, it is generally owing to our own inattention. Watch all the puppets and their strings and you will not be surprised: each occurrence is perfectly logical, if at times bordering ever so slightly on the overwrought. But we are dealing here with writers and their monolithic egos, so don’t expect a modest variation on a familiar theme.