Red Lights (France, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

15 years ago, this is the kind of chilling, gripping thriller that a hungry distributor like Miramax would have snapped up. Now, it's up to a small company like Wellspring to find these gems in the rough and bring them to our attention. Red Lights is one of the best thrillers I have seen this year: tight, taut, and unpredictable. A great screenplay (based on a novel by French crime writer Georges Simenon, the creator of Inspector Maigret) and top-notch direction (by Cédric Kahn) are only half the story. The other half is the riveting portrayal given by the grumpy-looking lead actor, Jean-Pierre Darroussin.

It's summertime, and Antoine (Darroussin) and his wife, Helene (Carole Bouquet), are on the road, traveling through the South of France to pick up their two children from camp. Things do not start out auspiciously. Antoine is annoyed that Helene was late meeting him after work, and the heavy traffic tries his patience. He decides to take a back road detour, and this doesn't sit well with Helene. By the time they stop for a brief rest at a bar (Antoine claims it's so he can use the bathroom, but he really buys a drink), they are sniping at each other. Hours later, when they reach a second stop, the atmosphere in the car has further soured.

Twenty minutes after leaving the car, Antoine returns to it, but Helene is not there. In her place is a note informing him that she has decided to take the train. Panicked, Antoine rushes to the nearest station, but misses her by seconds. So he drives to the next station, but is too late. Despondent, he visits another bar. It's there that he encounters the uncommunicative stranger (Vincent Deniard) to whom he later gives a lift. Antoine is courting danger, or maybe he didn't hear about the escaped convict who is the subject of a region-wide manhunt. And why does the stranger never remove his hand from his pocket?

For a film that starts out slowly, Red Lights spends the better part of its final hour generating more tension than a high wire act without a net. Even seemingly static scenes are suspenseful. Consider, for example, a ten-minute sequence in which Antoine makes a series of phone calls trying to locate his now-missing wife, or a routine "fact finding" interview between Antoine and a police detective. These are more nerve wracking than one could reasonably expect them to be. (Strangely, they also generate greater tension than the scenes in which Antoine and the stranger share a ride, although there's plenty of suspense during those moments, as well.)

As a result of the discordant rhythm that Kahn gives to the film, it's impossible to predict what will happen next, or where everything will end up. When the whole story has been told, viewers will recognize a kind of karmic symmetry to events, but the chief pleasure is in getting to that point. And Kahn is fond of red herrings. He spends a lot of time with the camera pointed at the front windshield. We have been "programmed" by Hollywood movies to anticipate that such shots are prologues to an onrushing roadside danger. This is only one way that the director keeps us on pins and needles until he finally delivers.

Darroussin has the kind of face that was made for this sort of role. It's a rough, weary visage with the mouth set in a perpetual frown. Antoine is not particularly likeable - he instigates quarrels with his wife, sneaks a drink whenever he thinks he can get away with it, and acts with self-destructive abandon. It's no wonder Helene leaves him. But, despite all of Antoine's negative characteristics, we end up identifying with him. He is craven, slovenly, and pugnacious - personality traits that are normally absent from motion picture protagonists yet present, to one degree or another, in all of us.

Movie fans will recognize elements of Hitchcock and Clouzot in Kahn's approach. There are also similarities to George Sluzier's 1988 The Vanishing, although only to a point. Red Lights is in many ways more original and arresting. If there's a downside to the film, it's that the beginning is "typically French" - or, to put it another way, talky. The mundane conversations between Antoine and Helene are critical to set up their relationship, but they may try the patience of those who expect thrillers to start with a bang and never slow their pace. Once things get started, however, Kahn sends us into an ever-tightening spiral that takes us places never hinted at by those routine, establishing scenes.

Red Lights (France, 2004)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2004-09-10
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1