According to Chekhov, if a storyteller hangs a gun in the room from the outset, by the end, it absolutely must go off. Put it in the title, and there are even bigger promises to be kept, which is both the initial appeal and inevitable letdown of Joann Sfar’s “The Lady in the Car With Glasses and a Gun,” a seductive Franco-Belgian thriller that never quite lives up to its imagination-tickling title. A relative blip at the French box office, the Magnolia pickup would look great on the big screen (vintage drive-ins, especially), but will find more takers on demand.
Almost entirely an exercise in style, the 1970s-set “Lady” suggests the sort of mind-bender “Psycho” might have been had Marion Crane never stopped — much less showered — at the Bates Motel: It’s a guilty-conscience road movie, in which a dingbat secretary (Scottish actress Freya Mavor, tarted out in an ultra-short summer skirt and oversized “Mrs. Doubtfire” specs) agrees to drop her boss (Benjamin Biolay) and his manipulative wife (“Nymphomaniac’s” Stacy Martin) at the airport, then decides to take his borrowed blue Thunderbird for a spin.
What begins as a joyride swiftly turns unsettling, however, as nearly everyone the hot-roddin’ redhead encounters along the way claims to remember her from the day before. How could this be possible? Normally, we’d assume all these weirdos — from the diner, gas station and David Lynch-worthy hotel — were somehow pulling her chain, but Sfar hasn’t given us any reason to consider his heroine credible, which certainly complicates things when she discovers a body in the trunk and a rifle stashed in the backseat.
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Could she be the killer? And if not, what the heck is going on? Working from this relatively thin premise, adapted from a trippy pulp noir by French novelist Sebastien Japrisot (“A Very Long Engagement”), Sfar creates the eerie impression of being trapped in someone else’s dream. Relying on hallucinatory tricks in which time seems to roll back on itself, or else lurch forward to some possible future, the helmer makes everything feel surreal enough that we hardly stop to consider the only logical explanation, delivered in stultifying detail over a tedious, low-tension climax.
For Sfar, this relatively inconsequential lark must have been a fun way to clear the slate after a more ambitious collaboration with Guillermo del Toro and producer David Heyman fell through. The project bears little connection to the comic-book creator’s two previous features, the showbiz biopic “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” and the philosophical feline cartoon “The Rabbi’s Cat,” though that seems to be the point.
Adapted once before, as a clunky 1970 eyesore starring Samantha Eggar and Oliver Reed, “Lady” provides a bare-bones chassis on which Sfar is free to reconstruct a sleek, modern body, paring it down to the stylistic essentials, a la Jacques Deray’s “Swimming Pool.” With its sultry two-tone, blue-and-bronze design, Sfar’s version certainly looks stunning, but it’s remarkably empty-headed — like its heroine, who floats through the movie like someone recently brained with a two-by-four. The film treats her absent-mindedness like an asset, exploiting Mavor’s sex appeal at every turn, and yet, gun or no gun, deprived of any recognizable sense of personality, she’s still little more than just a generic lady with glasses at the end.