Dir: Pascale Ferran. France. 2014. 128mins

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One of the most delightfully bizarre plot twists in recent memory doesn’t quite redeem a dramatically thin story of two souls adrift in an anonymous airport zone in French director Pascale Ferran’s long-awaited follow-up to the fine Lady Chatterley. But this is still a courageous, original number that has something in common with a certain unconventional, magical-realist strand of South-East Asian cinema as practised by Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. It’s a title that will flutter off to other festivals after its Cannes premiere, but distributors will need some persuading that the film’s kookiness is enough to overcome its frustratingly patchy plot and sparing doses of drama.

Everything seems to be pointing towards an auteurish rom-com conclusion, though one that seems frustratingly slow to develop.

American actor Josh Charles (from TV’s The Good Wife) plays Gary, a US engineer who is in Paris for a business meeting before heading off to oversee a major construction project in Dubai. He’s staying in a standard-issue Hilton overlooking the runways of Charles De Gaulle airport, the same hotel where gamine Audrey (Demoustier) is holding down a McJob as a chambermaid.

From the start the camera eye and ear appears to take a detached attitude to the problems of these two little people – drifting away, for example, on Audrey’s train commute into work, to visit the other occupants of the carriage and listen in on their phone conversations, their MP3 music, even their thoughts, and to stress, in a series of interior and exterior longshots, the muffled anonymity of the airport hotel setting, the sense that we’re in a place of transition.

The problem is that the film’s detached tone does nothing for our engagement with Gary’s apparently motiveless decision, after a nocturnal panic attack, to miss his flight, quit his job, and take up residence, for the time being, in limbo-land. Conceptually it’s a fascinating move and one that many in the audience may sympathise with, but Charles’ performance is so understated, and his character so ordinary, that a series of phone calls in which he patiently talks colleagues through the mess  (as in a much duller version of UK carphone thriller Locke) fail to lift off. Only a Skype chat with the wife he has also decided to leave (Radha Mitchell, holding nothing back) quickens the dramatic pulse.

Meanwhile we see Audrey making up the rooms, changing the amenities, drawing back the curtains. Everything seems to be pointing towards an auteurish rom-com conclusion, though one that seems frustratingly slow to develop. But during a rooftop cigarette break, a jaw-dropping plot curveball comes out of nowhere. It’s one that involves special effects, aerial sequences and some impressive animal wrangling; to reveal more would be to ruin the surprise. Once the shock has worn off, though, we’re in the familiar territory of one of those anthropomorphised French nature documentaries – a world which seems to bear little or no relation to the Gary plotline, if not for the fact that both he and Audrey undergo a kind of metamorphosis.

Production companies: Archipel 35, France 2 Cinema, Titre et Structure

International sales: Films Distribution, www.filmsdistribution.com

Producer: Denis Freyd

Screenplay: Pascale Ferran, Guillaume Breaud

Cinematography: Julien Hirsch

Editor: Mathilde Muyard

Production designer: Thierry Francois

Music: Beatrice Thiriet

Main cast: Josh Charles, Anais Demoustier, Roschdy Zem, Camélia Jordana, Geoffrey Cantor, Clark Johnson, Taklyt Vongdara, Radha Mitchell