Joann Sfar’s take on Sébastien Japrisot’s 1966 novel is an intriguing, psychological thriller which plunges the audience back into 1970s France lovingly recreated by the director with sexy Scottish-born actress Freya Mavor as the lady of the title. This is the second time Japrisot’s novel has been put on celluloid. Russian born director Anatole Litvak’s The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gunwas first back in 1970 with British actress Samantha Eggar in the lead role And it’s to Sfar’s credit that, despite a 45-year gap, there is visually scant difference between the two films. True to his roots as an author of graphic novels, Sfar’s film pays great attention to detail and is impeccably stylish from the split screen technique popular with directors in the 1960s to the authentic hairstyles and clothes of the era. Yet Sfar doesn’t sacrifice form over content and expertly builds the tension to heighten the mystery at the heart of the film. Characters and clues are cleverly introduced to keep the audience guessing over whether the red-haired heroine is the victim of an elaborate ruse or is descending into madness. Only the ending disappoints and feels rushed perhaps to avoid over-analysis of the plot’s twists and turns and possible implausabilities.
Dany (Mavor) works at an advertising agency as a secretary for the director, Michel Caravaille (Benjamin Biolay). One evening she is asked by her boss to drive him to the airport in his stunning Thunderbird Convertible and afterwards to take the car back to his house. She decides instead to fulfil a dream of driving to the French Riviera to see the sea. Along the way, several strange occurrences make her question whether she is losing her mind. Her sanity is put to the ulltimate test when she finds a dead body and a gun in the trunk of the car.
In this latest version, the director plays heavily on the ambiguity surrounding Dany’s state of mind. Is she schizophrenic or are her internal monologues her rational and irrational sides trying to make sense of a bizarre situation? Mavor is an inspired choice of leading actress. Born in Glasgow in 1971, she shot to fame as Mini McGuiness in the BAFTA-winning drama Skins. She spent several years during her teens living in La Rochelle on the west coast of France and speaks the language flawlessly. It’s a tall order for a relatively inexperienced film actress to carry almost the totality of the film on her shoulders. Mavor’s in almost every scene and whether she is the shy, secretary or the smouldering sex-bomb, she never puts a foot wrong. The secondary characters are simply there as plot devices to move the mystery along except for Vincenzo (Elio Germano) who seems to have a dual purpose. One is to further muddy the waters over Dany’s grip on reality, the other is to add spice in a raunchy sex scene which is the sine qua non of almost every French film.
Sfar’s last two film, Gainsbourg and The Rabbi’s Cat, met with wide critical acclaim. La Dame dans L’Auto…. proves once again he is one of the most captivating of a younger generation of French directors.