Red Lights, a new French thriller, begins with an ominous setup. A prosperous middle-aged couple is preparing to leave Paris for the summer camp their children are attending. It’s a trip that Antoine, the husband, is looking forward to. We meet him in his office, sending a last minute e-mail to Helene in which he confesses to a frisky excitement reminiscent of a first date. They agree to meet after work for a quick drink before blowing town. But something goes sour. Helene is late to the bar, and Antoine has time to drink a second beer. His good humor disappears, and we realize that the alcohol he’s consuming will be an integral part of the story. By the time Helene appears, harried and apologetic, he’s getting downright crabby. The bickering begins, quietly at first, and Antoine continues drinking furtively. By the time they’re driving through congested highway traffic that evening, Antoine’s on a nasty drunk and he and Helene are openly fighting. We’re not sure why they’re fighting, but the triviality of it is the point. When Helene disappears from a roadside bar later that evening, we understand that this film will be about how fear and tragedy can cut through petty travail and expose the deep love at the core of their relationship.

Or it could, if we only cared more about Antoine and Helene. I haven’t read the Georges Simenon novel on which this film is based, but the two protagonists who show up on the screen are barely more than ciphers. We’re told that Helene, played by the lovely and coolly assured veteran Carole Bouquet, wears the pants in the marriage–she’s the one with a high-powered legal career while Antoine has a more humble insurance job. They seem to have a placid and comfortable relationship, so it’s a little bewildering that the plot depends on Antoine going on a compulsive and nasty bender, and we can’t figure out why Helene doesn’t make a greater effort to prevent Antoine from drinking, or at least take control of the wheel.

But for whatever reason, Helene endures Antoine’s abuse and increasing drunkenness late into the long night’s ride along French back roads, until she finally abandons him and hops on a train to complete the trip. The rest of the film tells the story of the panic-stricken Antoine’s efforts to find his wife during the course of the night and the following morning. Complicating his search considerably is that there’s a homicidal prison escapee on the loose. Of course, this killer ends up hitching a ride with Antoine as he drives frantically about, trying to find Helene.

There’s a certain effective storytelling verve to Red Lights, and at times director Cedric Kahn effectively dramatizes Antoine’s paranoid, intoxicated point of view. And the movie is a reasonably entertaining variant on a type of highway thriller that Europeans seem particularly drawn to; for example, the plot of Red Lights is reminiscent of a Dutch film from 1988 called The Vanishing, another story in which a man’s beloved disappears at a gas station. If the highway in American movies tends to be a symbol of freedom and restless wandering, in European movies it takes on a sinister aspect. This may be a mentality that dates back to the Middle Ages and beyond, when travel between cities and kingdoms was exceedingly dangerous. In Red Lights, Antoine and Helene are a couple who exist harmoniously in their natural Parisian habitat, but become terribly vulnerable in the dark highway night.

But our middle-class protagonists are too sketchily and generically drawn for us to care much about them, and when we’re given some information about Helene’s fate during the night, we can’t summon up the requisite horror and pity. Suffice it to say that Red Lights is ultimately pretty disappointing; like in another recent French film, last year’s Irreversible, the woman ends up suffering hideously for the neglect of her man.

There’s not much to say about the new WWII romance Head in the Clouds as it makes a brief theatrical run on its way to cable television purgatory. The story: the passionate, decade-long romance between a poor Irish kid (Stuart Townsend), studying on scholarship at Cambridge, and the beautiful, notorious and flighty rich girl (Charlize Theron). They meet in the early 1930s. Charlize is bored, aimless and looking for kicks. Stuart talks about the Spanish Civil War a lot. They separate, they travel, they write letters, they reunite. They go to decadent parties and exchange devil-may-care wisecracks that are oh-so-ironic because they’re only dimly aware of that ranting German on the radio. A haggard Penelope Cruz limps in from Spain, and now they’re a menage a trois in Paris. Charlize and Penelope do a hot tango. Charlize dons leather and takes revenge on a bad man with a whip. War is declared. People join the Resistance. Lives change forever. People die heroically.

The most startling thing about this film is its exposure of Charlize Theron’s acting chops. Honestly, before last year’s Monster I probably couldn’t have picked her out of a lineup of Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn Stamos and other Hollywood Teutons. Still, her Monster makeover was pretty impressive, even if its gimme-that-Oscar calculation was off-putting. But in Head in the Clouds, Theron is out of her element in the role of the spoiled heiress Gilda Besse. It’s not impossible to believe that Townsend’s Guy, a dutiful, conscience-stricken anti-Fascist, would be in love with a rich, apolitical woman, but Besse is no Isabel Archer from James’ A Portrait of a Lady or Brett Ashley from Hem’s The Sun Also Rises. Despite the script, which leaves no cliche unturned, Cate Blanchett or Gwyneth Paltrow might have salvaged the role–both women have a certain wit and panache that could compensate for Gilda’s otherwise reprehensible behavior. Theron, by contrast, is loud and vulgar, underlining her supposed witticisms with broad flourishes. In contrast to an actress with real personality and style–like Ingrid Bergman–who could make nobler wars even nobler, Theron comes off like Anna Nicole Smith urging her man on at a state fair pie-eating contest.