"Alias Betty" features some of the most self-centered, contemptible characters in recent movie history. It also has one of the most distasteful subplots you can think of — especially in light of recent local news.

What's more, the first half of this French drama/thriller is so slowly paced and downbeat that it makes "The Hours" look like a joyride.

So how can such a film turn things around so quickly? Perhaps, it's the sudden change in tone — in its final third — when the movie becomes even darker and considerably more ironic. That's enough to garner some well-deserved chuckles.

Known as "Betty Fisher et Autres Histoires (Betty Fisher and other stories)" in its home country, the film adapts Ruth Rendell's novel of the same name. The title character is a best-selling author (Sandrine Kiberlain), who's had a rather rocky relationship with her possibly unhinged mother, Margot (Nicole Garcia).

Things go from awful to downright tragic when Margot visits her daughter. While she's distracted, Betty's young son tumbles out of his third-story window — falling into a coma as a result of his injuries and eventually passing away.

To comfort her distraught daughter, Margot kidnaps another young boy, Jose (Alexis Chatrian), and tells Betty that he's the son of a friend. When Betty discovers the truth, she's horrified and insists they return the boy. However, his mother (Mathilde Seigner) doesn't seem all that concerned about his disappearance, and Betty starts feeling motherly toward him.

This is pretty dicey material. But some unexpected zigs and zags help — in particular, the closing sequence in an airport, which is so amusingly wry that you have to give the film some credit, even if you don't like it.

Kiberlain makes her character's transformation from grieving mother to willing kidnapping accomplice believable. And Edouard Baer is good as a charming rogue, one of the film's more interesting characters.

"Alias Betty" is not rated but would probably receive an R for occasional use of strong sex-related profanity, violence (gunplay and a stabbing), simulated drug use (marijuana and tranquilizers), some crude sexual talk, brief female nudity and brief sexual contact. Running time: 103 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com