Waiting to meet his wife, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) downs one, then two, then three beers.
When the couple finally heads out on the highway, radio broadcasts of roadside fatalities and news of a convict on the loose give the calm surface of director Cedric Kahn's film a tremble of uncertainty.
Something's up, but what?
As the couple drives toward Bordeaux, the increasingly irate and drunken Antoine is seduced by the neon bar signs reflected in his windshield. They beckon from the roadside, reminiscent of the sin-addled visuals from some 1950s melodrama.
Like the hapless uptowner adrift in After Hours' downtown Manhattan, drunkenness has a weirding effect on Antoine's world, injecting black comedy into the proceedings. In one bar, he encounters a Ramones-groomed rocker who insists on buying Antoine yet another drink, and he lapses into foggy, goony reveries of happier days with Heléne.
After Antoine heads into a crowded rural bar for yet another double scotch, he returns to find a note informing him that Heléne's hopped a train to Bordeaux.
From a portrait of marital discord, Kahn's film suddenly transforms into a Hitchcockian thriller when a hulking stranger demands a ride with the now blindly drunk Antoine.
Darroussin has the luckless, slightly cartoonish face of the guy who gets iced in the first reel of every film noir. As Kahn's taut film progresses, that regular guy dimension proves essential as Antoine transforms from a pitiful, forgettable little man to one pushed to reassert his masculinity in a sudden, shocking outburst.
The plot thickens at a breakneck pace, but that change of tack will probably be too late for some viewers. Kahn is in and out of his film with a jewel thief's stealth, leaving viewers to scratch their heads, a little disappointed by the abruptness, a little awed by Kahn's control. Now playing at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.