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Time for a French lesson in smart storytelling

By Lawrence Toppman
Movie Critic

You know you're in a French film when someone blurts, “Your anti-smoking terrorism ------ me off!”

Or when a handsome cop takes immediate romantic interest in a complainant, though she's beefy and unprepossessing on the surface.

Or (my favorite) when a character is humiliated on a national talk show devoted to famous writers. (Oprah Winfrey does this once in a while. But every week? Mais non!)

If this kind of storytelling is your cup of absinthe, Claude Lelouch makes it easy to sip appreciatively. The director spends the first half of the film in the manner of another Claude: Chabrol, whose crime movies have delivered icy pleasure for decades. But Lelouch, who has made romance his prime screen concern since the 1966 “A Man and a Woman,” returns more to form in the second half.

He wrote the script with Pierre Uytterhoeven, who has been a frequent collaborator since 1964. (They shared the best original screenplay Oscar for “Woman.”) They take a long time to reveal the identity of the traveling man who picks up a jilted woman en route to the south of France.

Is he a serial killer who has escaped from prison and is looking for young women to molest? Is he the suburban teacher who abandoned his family and is looking for a fling under an assumed name, while cops seek him? Is he (as he once claims) the ghostwriter for Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant) and the man behind the novel recently acclaimed as her masterpiece?

Mr. X is played by Dominique Pinon, the rubber-faced gremlin from “Amelie” and “Alien: Resurrection,” so he could be anybody. He passes himself off as the fiancé of chain-smoking Huguette (Audrey Dana), who takes him to meet her farm family after her real partner dumps her. Eventually, we find out whether he's after her body – either carnally or criminally – or just wants to capture her for Ralitzer's next novel.

The film's not really a whodunit or even a whoizzit, so learning his identity matters less than what happens after he reveals it. The film becomes truly French in its attitudes toward thwarted ambition and emotion, right down to an ending that may strike Americans as melodramatic.

The acting find is Dana, who played Lelouch's mother in his last film, is a hooker/hairdresser in this one and is reportedly going to star in his next. She's an interesting muse for him: She's not concerned about winning us over, yet she's eventually appealing in spite of neuroses, bad manners and poor judgments. An American actress might have played for laughs, but the French know better.

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