French "beach read" Roman de Gare is a mystery too light for its own good.

The French phrase "roman de gare" roughly translates as "travel novel," but while this film of the same name from septuagenarian New Wave veteran Claude Lelouch (best known for his 1966 art-house hit A Man and a Woman) is perhaps as ultimately insubstantial as a typical beach read, it doesn't go down quite as easily.

Lelouch's 49th feature, Roman de Gare is a twisty, slippery semi-mystery that takes mystery fiction itself as a subject. This blend of nationality, style, and subject matter draws strong comparisons to François Ozon's 2003 crossover hit Swimming Pool — though Roman de Gare is harder to follow and less, um, eye-catching.

The film opens with Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant), a famous mystery and crime-fiction novelist, being interviewed on a TV talk show about her latest bestseller. From there, the movie flashes back to give background on exactly how the novel came to be, though it isn't entirely clear for a while that that's what you're seeing.

We see an anxious, chain-smoking young woman, Huguette (Audrey Dana), having a fight with her fiancé en route to meet her parents in rural France. When the couple stops for gas along the highway, the fiancé abandons her. After spending a lonely night on a bench at the station, the woman hitches a ride with Pierre (Dominique Pinon), a man stopping at the station for his morning coffee.

Along the ride, the film drops conflicting hints as to what Pierre's story might be. He may be Ralitzer's ghostwriter — or merely secretary. He may be a recently escaped serial killer. He may be a high school teacher who's run out on his wife and kids. Or he may just be a guy with an overactive imagination.

This set-up is intriguing, but the mystery doesn't hold up long enough. Attempts to build the kind of suspense found in roughly similar Alfred Hitchcock films like Suspicion or Shadow of a Doubt fall flat.

In the midst of this, there's a comedy of errors sequence, as Huguette convinces the mystery man to stand in for her fleeing fiancé and meet her parents. Purely on its own terms, this material is the most enjoyable stretch of the film.

The actors are engaging. The statuesque Ardant doesn't have a lot to do except look fabulous on her yacht, but her star power carries her along. Dana is attractive but with a hint of palpable desperation. And Pinon is a skinny, little frog-faced man who somehow maintains his own brand of charisma.

Ultimately, however, the shifting identities here — Is Judith a fraud? Is Huguette a hairdresser or a hooker? Is Pierre a killer, a maligned genius, or a schlub suffering a mid-life crisis? — never amount to much.

As summer counterprogramming, it's nice to see recognizable adults on the big screen, but that's about the strongest recommendation I can give to Roman de Gare.

Roman de Gare

Opening Friday, July 11th

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