IT HAS taken French director Claude Lelouch four decades and more than 40 feature films to win over his country's movie critics.
He did it with a clever mystery thriller, "Roman de Gare," which opens in L.A. on Friday and was a hit with French critics when it premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival. It was also a box-office success that made a star out of its female lead, newcomer Audrey Dana.
He used a little cleverness off-screen as well. Since he's had such a tough go of it for so long with the critics, he wanted to be able to make "Roman de Gare" without all that baggage attached. So he used a pseudonym -- Herve Picard -- for its release.
"I wanted people to talk about the movie and not Claude Lelouch," says the wiry 70-year-old with close-cropped gray hair, glasses and an engaging smile. "It is a dream that I have had for a long time. I did it now because I had nothing to lose."
Lelouch finally let it be known that he was the man behind the film when it was selected for Cannes. Plus, he says, "a lot of people knew. When you write a book [under another name], it is easy because there are only two people who know -- the writer and the editor. With films, there are a lot of people. It is too difficult to hide. But the first three projections of the film were under the name Herve Picard, and it was fabulous."
Even if he kept to the guise of Picard, it would be hard not to recognize "Roman de Gare" as a Lelouch film. It is filled with the themes he's explored over the last 40 years.
"I wanted to do a story and put all what I like in it -- love, music, mystery, cars, children. I put all of my obsessions in the films," he says, holding court at the Sunset Marquis, in town recently for the City of Lights, City of Angels French film festival and a tribute at the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre.
The problem with French critics for the writer-director of such international hits as "And Now My Love" and "Les Miserables" began in 1966, when Lelouch achieved acclaim for the multiple-Oscar-winning love story "A Man and a Woman."
The film caught the attention of noted New Wave director Francois Truffaut, who wanted to write about it for Cahiers du Cinema, the influential French film magazine where many New Wave directors began their careers.
As Lelouch relates through a translator, Truffaut proclaimed "A Man and a Woman" an example of New Wave cinema because Lelouch was the "auteur" of the film. "I said it is not a New Wave film," Lelouch recalls telling Truffaut, who later became his good friend.
"The New Wave showed me what I was not supposed to do. The New Wave was not a very important film movement. Truffaut got very angry. And in the Cahiers Du Cinema, they wrote an article that massacred 'A Man and a Woman.' From this time, I had a very bad time with critics. Except for this film. They love the film."
None of the characters are what they seem in "Roman de Gare." Dominique Pinon ("Diva") plays a man who may be a serial killer or perhaps a ghostwriter for a famous mystery novelist (Fanny Ardant).
Dana is a young woman abandoned by her fiance at a roadside truck stop where she meets Pinon. She asks him to go to her parents' farm with her and pretend to be her boyfriend.
"I wanted to make a movie about lying," Lelouch says, "and the importance of lying. In this movie everybody is lying."
Lelouch hopes that audiences will revisit "Roman de Gare" after they learn all the truths behind the lies in the first viewing. "If you watch the film a second time you will see the real movie I made!"