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The Lady in the Car

Original title: La dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil

D: Joann Sfar / 95m

Cast: Freya Mavor, Benjamin Biolay, Elio Germano, Stacy Martin, Thierry Hancisse, Alexandre von Sivers, Olivier Bonjour

Mousy secretary Dany (Mavor) works for businessman Michel Caravaille (Biolay). She has undeveloped fantasies about their relationship becoming something more than just employer and employee, but Michel is clearly uninterested. When he tells her he needs a report typed up urgently, she tells him it will take her all night. As he needs it first thing in the morning he tells her she can do the work at his home. After a quick stop at her home for some things, they arrive at Michel’s home where she is given a room to work in, and meets his wife, Anita (Martin).

The next day, and with the report completed, Michel asks Dany to drive himself and Anita to the airport, and then take the car, a magnificent Thunderbird, back to his home. Dany drops them off but decides that, with the weekend ahead of her, no one will know if she drives the car out to the coast (she’s never seen the sea), and as long as she gets the car back before Michel and Anita return. But as she makes her way through the French countryside, Dany finds herself meeting people who say they’ve seen, and talked to her, earlier on. This angers Dany, especially when the staff at a gas station are more concerned with her having been there before than in paying credence to the attack that was made on her in the toilets, and despite her receiving an injury that she didn’t have “before”.

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At a hotel Dany finds again that she’s recognised by the staff. She also meets an Italian who calls himself Georges (Germano). Dany allows herself to be seduced by Georges, but the next day she finds he has stolen the Thunderbird. Desperate to get the car back she enlists the aid of a truck driver and his friends on the CB network to find out where Georges has got to. But when she tracks him down to a seaside town, events take an even more disturbing turn, and Dany discovers that she’s now connected to a murder.

Adapted from the novel by Sébastien Japrisot, Joann Sfar’s third feature is a twisty, Gallic thriller that looks cool, plays it cool, but becomes quite heated in the last quarter of an hour, as its tricksy, mysterious narrative unravels thanks to one massive mistake made early on in the movie’s construction. It’s not hard to work out what’s happening, or who’s responsible, but the why is kept under wraps until quite near the end. By the time all is revealed though, Dany’s journey from subdued, submissive secretary to not quite defenceless stooge-in-the-making has taken one too many “unexpected” turns for it all to work properly or credibly.

Which is a shame, as for much of its running time, The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun is an entertaining mystery movie, sometimes feeling a little surreal, sometimes a little like experiencing a mild hallucinogen, but always keeping the audience a little off-kilter. This helps the viewer identify more closely with Dany and her escalating problems, as the script by Patrick Godeau and Gilles Marchand does its best to retain a semblance of “normality” while putting its heroine through the emotional wringer. Each successive encounter with someone who’s already met her leaves Dany questioning what’s going on but this isn’t some Twilight Zone fantasy that she’s experiencing; instead it’s a much more sinister world she finds herself dealing with, and as the script keeps Dany on the back foot, it strives to keep the viewer in suspense at the same time.

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That it doesn’t fully succeed is due to the somewhat generic nature of the mystery itself. It’s unlikely that Dany is going mad, and to be fair, the movie doesn’t take that tack, but in putting her in situations where things aren’t as clearcut or as straightforward as they should be, Sfar and the screenwriters portray a secondary world where nothing is obvious, and expectations should be abandoned. Once Dany veers off the main road back to Michel’s home and heads for the seaside, it’s almost as if she’s entered some kind of alternate reality, a dream world perhaps, and the movie tries hard to maintain that illusion for as long as possible. And until Dany meets Georges, it succeeds quite well in creating that kind of atmosphere.

In a lot of mystery thrillers, the introduction of a man who is sympathetic to the heroine’s troubles, and wants to help out, usually leads to a romance between them that’s borne out of tackling those troubles. And at first it seems as if Georges is there to fulfill that role, but even though they end up in bed together, the audience will already know that Georges isn’t to be trusted (Germano’s performance practically screams “con man”). By removing this small amount of hope, the audience begins to understand that this movie may be more nihilistic than they expected. And as Dany gets further and further into trouble, so it proves.

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Sfar is a competent director, certainly able to elicit strong performances from his cast – Mavor, perhaps best known as Mini from the TV series Skins (2011-12) is very good indeed as Dany – but the movie’s tone is wayward, and the ending feels rushed, as if the movie had to come in at a certain running time and a less hurried denouement would have ruined things. He’s also never quite sure as a director with where to place the camera, leaving the movie looking and feeling a little awkward in its presentation of certain scenes, such as Dany’s romantic fantasies, and when he feels the need to vary the camera angles when Dany’s in the car. And he fumbles the revelation of what’s been happening (and why), leaving the viewer unsure if he/she heard right, or if there’s something more to be added. As it is, the revelation is unnecessarily complicated, and relies too much on coincidence to work effectively, a problem Sfar doesn’t have the experience to solve.

But as already mentioned, the movie does look cool, thanks to Manuel Dacosse’s sterling cinematography. The movie has an autumnal, melancholy feel to it that Dacosse highlights through the use of some unfussy yet effective lighting, and a subdued colour palette. And it’s a movie that gets progressively darker in terms of light and shade as Dany’s problems worsen. This makes the movie intriguing to watch on a visual level, and helps make up for some of the failings elsewhere. But all in all, it’s a movie where style and substance aren’t on an equal footing.

Rating: 6/10 – while there’s much to admire in The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun, it’s narrative isn’t rewarding enough to overcome the pitfalls it finds itself creating; Mavor has the look of a troubled innocent, and is the glue that holds the movie together, but her performance alone isn’t enough to overcome the movie’s various narrative problems.