'The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun': Film Review

Courtesy of Wild Bunch
A stylized old-school thriller without much of a script.

'Gainsbourg' director Joann Sfar teams up with 'Skins' star Freya Mavor.

It may sport one of the longer titles in recent memory, but retro French thriller The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (La Dame dans l’auto avec des lunettes et un fusil) nonetheless comes up way too short in the storytelling department. That said, this third directorial effort from cartoonist Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) is filled with plenty of throwback stylistic flourishes, a terrific '60s-'70s soundtrack and an eye-popping lead turn from Skins star Freya Mavor — all of which could help the early August release gain a minor cult following at fests and on the small screen.

The prolific Sfar scripted his first two films — one an animation flick based on his popular graphic novel, the other a dreamlike biopic of legendary French crooner Serge Gainsbourg — but this is the first time he's worked with someone else's material. He could have chosen more wisely: Based on Sebastien Japrisot’s 1966 crime novel (previously adapted by Anatole Litvak in a forgotten 1970 version starring Samantha Eggar), the screenplay by Gilles Marchand and Patrick Godeau offers up one major third-act twist amid an otherwise weary psycho-suspenser that fails to bring the audience on board.

What will however lure some viewers in is deliberately old-school filmmaking that gives nods to 70’s-era Brian de Palma and Dario Argento, while bringing to mind recent nostalgic genre pieces like Berberian Sound Studio, Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears. Sfar may not have much to work with here, but he works it to the bone, employing split-screen, flashbacks, flash-forwards and suggestive jump cuts, with cinematographer Manu Dacosse (Hallelujah) capturing it all in exquisite sepia-toned widescreen.

As for the plot, it revolves around a lonely Parisian secretary, Dany (Mavor), whose weirdo rich boss (singer-actor Benjamin Biolay) and wife (Nymphomaniac’s Stacy Martin) ask her to stay over for a night of work, and then drive them to the airport in their Ford Thunderbird. On the way back, Dany goes a bit bonkers and takes the car on a joyride down south, claiming she’s "never seen the sea."

Things get even more bizarre when she’s assaulted — or not — in the bathroom of a gas station, whose employees claim that she had been there the day before. Then she stops at a hotel, where she meets an Italian drifter (Elio Germano) who seduces her, beds her and steals her car, only to find that there’s a body hidden in the trunk.

While all this is happening, Dany has visions of mutilated men — when she’s not talking to herself in the mirror. Is she crazy? The victim of a diabolical scheme? The film tosses out plenty of boondoggles, though none of them are very credible — or very interesting for that matter, even if Mavor gives her all in a highly physical performance that oscillates between scarlet femme fatale and Coke-bottle-rimmed gal Friday. Martin is also strong in a few key scenes, with both British actresses coasting along in French. (If they were dubbed, it’s smooth enough that you don’t ever notice.)

Clearly pushing style over substance, Sfar lavishly exercises his cinematic chops but fails to bring us along for the ride. He’s got a great eye, plus a great ear for period music – including classic cuts like Wendy Rene’s "After Laughter" and James Carr’s "Love Attack" — yet none of it builds to more than B-level fluff. Sure, all a movie may need is "a girl and a gun" as Jean-Luc Godard once said (he never mentioned the glasses), but a good story never killed anyone.

Production company: Waiting for Cinema

Cast: Freya Mavor, Benjamin Biolay, Elio Germano, Stacy Martin

Director: Joann Sfar

Screenwriters: Gilles Marchand, Patrick Godeau, based on the novel by Sebastien Japrisot

Producers: Patrick Godeau, Karen Monluc

Director of photography: Manu Dacosse

Production designer: Pierre Queffelean

Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne

Editor: Christophe Pinel

Composer: Agnes Olier

Casting director: Michael Laguens

International sales: Wild Bunch

No rating, 93 minutes

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