Why does a man choose, on a given day, to let his life go to hell? In the opening of Red Lights, adapted from a 1953 novel by Georges Simenon, writer-director Cédric Kahn offers hints in a sequence, set to Debussy’s elegantly creepy Nuages, that links together shots of circular and otherwise geometrically shaped public spaces, beautiful spots that could seem threatening to a man such as Antoine Dunant (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, in a spectacularly constrained performance), who — we’ll learn soon enough — can’t find a way out of his own serpentine train of thought. Moments later, we meet Antoine, a low-level insurance exec, guzzling three beers back to back at a corner café, with one eye on the street lest his wife, Hélène (Carole Bouquet, who made her screen debut nearly 30 years ago in Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire), arrive before he’s suitably fortified. A short time after, as they drive to the countryside from Paris to pick up their kids from summer camp, Hélène will discover that her husband is utterly plastered. A married couple, then, on a road trip — the husband clenching the wheel and brooding, the wife fuming beside him, and both so busy thinking dark thoughts that they’re half oblivious to news reports of an escaped convict on the loose nearby.
It’s a setup worthy of Hitchcock (although Antoine would’ve been too boozy for his taste — Hitch never allowed his imperiled heroes the luxury of fuzzy-headedness). Further marital bickering will reveal that Antoine isn’t usually a drinker, and yet, in the long night ahead, he’ll down so many cocktails that viewers will probably start running a mental tab, and laugh aloud when Kahn and cinematographer Patrick Blossier begin washing the reflections of blinking, winking neon tavern signs across Antoine’s windshield.
It’s at one of those bars that Hélène, freaked by his increasing belligerence and inability to drive in a straight line, abandons her husband to look for a train station, and it’s at another bar that Antoine tries to strike up a conversation with the laconic Man on the Run (Vincent Deniard), as he’s dubbed in the credits. When, minutes later, the stranger steps out of the parking-lot shadows, his face half hidden by the hood of a sweatshirt, and asks for a ride, the cocky, staggering Antoine doesn’t even break stride, waving the fellow right into the car. What happens next shouldn’t be revealed, though it’s not the details of Antoine’s detour into terror that count so much as his devastating realization — too late — that he invited it all upon himself, that he wanted, maybe even needed, trouble. As the convict says to his out-of-control benefactor, “The devil’s on vacation with you.”
The true mystery, Red Lights’ real thrill ride — and what seems to interest Kahn most, despite his skill at arranging the trappings of suspense — is marriage. Early on, Antoine and Hélène each express eagerness to see their kids again after a summer of separation, and one wonders if this isn’t a couple who needs children to distract them from the aridness of their relationship. She’s beautiful and accomplished, he plain and dull, and there are no signs really of the impassioned lovers they might once have been. Surely they were at one time; otherwise, what in the world brought them together? Kahn and his co-screenwriters provide few clues, and maybe that’s the point: The life-making energies of a marriage’s beginnings often dissipate completely, leaving what? Two strangers in a car, sick of each other, in desperate need of a reviving shock to the system.
When the sun finally rises, these and other questions are still crying out for resolution. It’s here, unfortunately, that Kahn lets his otherwise taut pacing go slack, as he and his screenwriters struggle, rather awkwardly, to jam in the final plot twists, and also provide a dash of hope. The latter feels like wishful thinking on the filmmaker’s part, but no matter — the contact high of Antoine’s turbulent night lingers on.
RED LIGHTS | Directed by CÉDRIC KAHN | Written by KAHN, LAURENCE FERREIRA-BARBOSA and GILLES MARCHAND, from the novel by Georges Simenon | Produced by PATRICK GODEAU Released by Wellspring Media | Westside Pavilion, Town Center 5, Playhouse 7