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    Red Lights

    Road worriers

    "Red Lights" harkens back to the traditions of French noir, combining suspense and character in a story about a road trip on which a rage-prone man's wife vanishes.


    Before Hollywood took over the European box office toward the end of the last century, French thrillers tended to differ from American thrillers in a Gallic emphasis on character over plot, a clinical detachment from the protagonists' motivations and behaviors, and a pessimism that rendered the punishment of transgression or resolution of mystery ambiguous. Where American protagonists were frequently heroic, pursuing justice (which mostly triumphed in the end), the French navigated a much stonier moral path: the lines between good and evil were often not easy to discern, and the idea of culpability was not limited to criminals or suspects.

    Original title: Feux Rouges.
    Directed by: C仕ric Kahn.
    Written by: Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, C仕ric Kahn, Gilles Marchand.
    Adapted from a novel by: Georges Simenon.
    Cast: Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Carole Bouquet, Vincent Deniard, Charline Paul, Jean-Pierre Gos, Myl熟e Demongeot, Sava Lolov, Eric Moreau, Igor Skreblin.
    Cinematography: Patrick Blossier.
    Edited by: Yann Dedet.
    In French with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site | French site
    If one were to describe the difference in terms of tone, American thrillers were often hot (lots of bloodshed, flashy emotions, big targets), while French counterparts were the essence of cool (violence of a less visceral sort, opaque masks, unseen enemies). The policiers of Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean-Pierre Melville and Claude Chabrol, although stylistically distinct, may owe much to the tradition of American film noir (and in Chabrol's case, Hitchcock as well), but they could never be confused with Hollywood productions — unlike, say, "The Crimson Rivers" by Mathieu Kassovitz, which in narrative, cinematography, editing and attitude already feels like a nascent English-language remake.

    Red Lights  
    The new movie "Red Lights," directed and adapted by Cedric Kahn ("L'Ennui") from the novel by Georges Simenon, reverses this Americanizing trend, and along with works like Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" (also based on a Simenon novel) and Jacques Audiard's "Read My Lips," signals the French thriller's return to more sophisticated ground. It's interesting to note that in his update of the novel, Kahn changed the setting from the East Coast of the United States to France, bringing Simenon's piercing examination of folly back to the Parisian bourgeoisie. The plot is minimal: middle-aged husband Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his wife Helene (Carole Bouquet) get a late start on a trip to pick up their children at the end of summer holidays in the country, and as the couple's tempers flare, the perils of being on the road late at night multiply. The dangers are three-fold: the husband is an alcoholic whose arguments with his wife trigger binge-drinking; exit ramps on rural byways are easily missed; and an escaped convict is on the loose.

    Setup, climax and denouement make the film a thriller, but "Red Lights" is equally a psychological study of an out-of-control personality. Antoine resists Helene's attempts at self-assertion, even though her objections to his behavior are reasonable and prudent. His alcohol-fueled rages cause him to act in ways that are not only self-destructive, but dangerous to others around him. He insists on pit stops to tank up (and we're not talking gas, here), and at the last one his wife disappears, seemingly of her own volition. Her absence becomes linked with the criminal predator, and the parallels between Antoine and the thug are evident, although one is in denial about his nature, and the other is not. Antoine's subterfuges will carry a great cost as he discovers that his powers of control are illusory.

      Red Lights
    Darroussin, a seasoned actor whose average looks belie his considerable talent, carries the film; he is in almost every shot. As Patrick Blossier's camera tracks Antoine's descent into a lurid hell of roadside bars, Darroussin's jowls sag with increasing dissipation, and his pasty complexion reflects the nightmarish neon lights. In a sequence late in the film, where at a village cafe he desperately tries to regain his grip and muster his wits to locate Helene, Darroussin's Antoine is a model of pressure finally caving into grace. This is expressive and moving acting, while the performer's physical affect remains subtly modulated.

    As the story line indicates, "Red Lights" is also a road movie, and as in all road movies, there is an external, geographical journey, and a simultaneous interior trek of self-discovery. Antoine comes to realize that, as trapped as he feels by years of marriage and his wife's judgments, the snare he has set himself is so much more lethal. Within the consequences of his thoughtless actions the film explores the true nature of evil. In a reversal of the Little Red Riding Hood story — an essentially conservative folk tale about the dangers of the wilderness and straying from the dictated path — Antoine is a man with childish impulses who loses himself in the woods, only to confront his own wolfish nature. It's curious that the color red — which has associations with heat, life, passion and prosperity — can also stand for warning, cessation and death. Some blood flows here, but this is a movie whose savagery is above all intellectual, as its protagonist learns, hopefully not too late, the difference between seeing red and exercising due caution.

    SEPTEMBER 4, 2004

    Reader comments on Red Lights:

  • red lights   from don bialos, Nov 24, 2004
  • Red Lights   from Hilary Nanda, Nov 24, 2004
  • Red Lights   from Red Lights, Mar 29, 2005

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