Directed by Cédric Kahn. Starring Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Carole Bouquet, Vincent Deniard. (2004, NR, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 7, 2005
Leave it to the French to fashion an anguished psychological thriller that, in its last moments, also turns out to be a tender love story. Based on a novel by crime writer Georges Simenon, Red Lights is an atmospheric study of a married French couple on a long drive to retrieve their children from summer camp. On the surface, everything seems fine, but it soon becomes clear that there are some hidden resentments festering. Just as the road before them becomes quickly snarled with weekend traffic and accident tie-ups, this marriage’s clogged arteries have also reached an acute stage. Antoine (Darroussin) is an undistinguished accountant who feels less important than his wife, Helene (Bouquet), a much-in-demand corporate attorney. After sneaking a few whiskey shots before departing, and then again at his frequent rest stops along the way, the schluby Antoine grows more bellicose by the mile. He rails at his wife (unfairly, as far as we can tell) about her emasculation of him and his general feeling of emotional derailment. We see the road from his point of view – a dreamy expanse of steady white lines or ubiquitous car bumpers. The mood and the visuals are slightly surreal, and for the first half of the movie it’s hard to tell where this road is leading or whether anything of consequence will ever occur. At one rest stop, Antoine returns to the car to find a note from his disgusted wife saying that she would take the train instead and meet him at the summer camp. He races to catch the train to no avail, and retreats into another bar and picks up a hitchhiker (Deniard), who may or may not be the prison escapee for whom roadblocks have been erected on the highway. On a back road, Antoine and the hitchhiker get into a row when they stop to fix a flat tire: It might be the result of Antoine’s drunken need to prove his manhood, and it’s possible the whole incident might be imaginary. Nevertheless, Antoine wakes up the next morning beside his broken-down car and sets about the task of sobering up. In a small cafe Antoine enacts the movie’s showpiece sequence, in which he dials a series of numbers with increasing franticness, trying to ascertain his wife’s whereabouts. Character actor Darroussin (who is in virtually every scene) comes through brilliantly as the story’s leading man, believably shifting from placid office drone to wounded maniac. Director and co-writer Kahn’s music choices also provide an able assist, shifting back and forth between the dreamy Debussy selections on the soundtrack and the increasingly boisterous rock riffs in the bars. Kahn creates a mood that calls to mind the thrillers of Hitchcock and Chabrol, the French roadways of Godard’s Weekend and Denis’ Friday Night, the surreality of Lynch’s Lost Highway or Sluizer’s The Vanishing (his first version, not the remake). The slowness of the film’s first half will be off-putting to many, but the film’s turns and final twist will reward the patient.