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Anything but rosy

'Red Lights' is masterful in creating a mood of hallucinatory despair.

September 10, 2004|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Seated in a Parisian bar impatiently waiting for his wife, Antoine listens with only half an ear to the TV newscaster predicting massive automotive disruptions for the holidays about to begin. "Be careful," the man says earnestly, but Antoine isn't really paying attention. He'll wish he had.

In Cedric Kahn's taut, atmospheric, impeccably made psychological thriller "Red Lights," Antoine and his wife, Helene, are about to embark, all unknowing, on a journey unlike any they have experienced. They will descend into an enveloping abyss and discover that the predictable world they know is but a single step away from the most unnerving chaos.

This pitiless sense of the games played by an indifferent fate is the legacy of Georges Simenon, whose novel was the basis for the screenplay co-written by director Kahn. A prolific, obsessive writer whose books have been the source material for more than 150 films, Simenon is always merciless toward his characters, and "Red Lights" skillfully follows his lead.

Antoine is played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin, an actor with a blue-collar persona perhaps most associated with the films he's made with the Marseille-based Robert Guediguian, such as "The Town Is Quiet." The regal-looking and accomplished Carole Bouquet, whose credits begin with Luis Bunuel's "That Obscure Object of Desire," plays Helene. It's great casting for an unlikely marriage, and Kahn, who offered the parts to both actors simultaneously, benefits greatly from their combined half-century of experience.

It's Antoine, a cubicle dweller in a large office, we meet first, sending a romantic e-mail to Helene, telling her how much he's looking forward to their upcoming trip; they are scheduled to pick up their children at camp and set off on a family vacation.

But as Helene, a successful corporate lawyer, is later and later for their rendezvous, Antoine's mood changes, and the number of beers and Scotches he consumes rises. There's an underlying edginess here, as if Antoine is simultaneously nursing a grudge and trying to suppress it. By the time the couple finally take to the highway, hours later than they planned, the tension has risen to an almost unbearable level.

Inevitably they encounter traffic, and just as inevitably, they end up verbally lunging for each other's throats, malevolently savaging each other as only longtime couples can. As Antoine stops for more and more roadside drinks, Helene's disdain for him as an alcoholic shares time with his savage resentment of her superior attitude, for his perception that she treats him like "the lowest of the low." When one of them says "the devil is on vacation with you," it doesn't feel like an exaggeration.

Finally, Helene says she will leave if he stops at one more highway bar. Not only does Antoine stop, he takes the car keys in with him. When he emerges, Helene is gone, having apparently dissolved into thin air like a magician's assistant, and "Red Lights" gets down to business.

What happens next is a combination of "The Lost Weekend" and "The Lady Vanishes," as Antoine simultaneously goes on a phenomenal bender and attempts to figure out what has happened to his wife. Step by heedless step, what he does takes him into a waking nightmare, the kind of dark phantasmagoria from which even daylight offers no sure relief.

Though it's not had extensive visibility in the U.S., director Kahn's previous work is widely respected in France. What he succeeds at exceptionally well here is the creation of mood. Kahn not only suffuses the film with an unnerving sense of disturbance and desperation, he deftly mixes in hallucinatory qualities as well. With Claude Debussy's haunting "Nuages" on the soundtrack, you almost wonder if what you're watching is a dream even though you're pretty sure it's not.

In the final analysis, it's impossible to think of "Red Lights" apart from Darroussin's tour-de-force performance. The emotional range the film demands of him is extremely wide, including resentment and fury, euphoria and lightheadedness, desperation and despair, and the actor is equal to all of it.

As Antoine drives and drives, surviving one nightmare only to begin another, it is Darroussin's gift and Kahn's ability that keep us guessing about what his final destination will be.


'Red Lights'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Intense language, adult emotional situations, a scene of violence

Jean-Pierre Darroussin...Antoine

Carole Bouquet...Helene

Vincent Deniard...Hitchhiker

Carline Paul...Waitress

Jean-Pierre Gos...Inspector

Released by Wellspring. Director Cedric Kahn. Producer Patrick Godeau. Screenplay Cedric Kahn, Laurence Ferreira-Barbosa with Gilles Marchand. Based on the novel by Georges Simenon. Cinematographer Patrick Blossier. Editor Yann Dedet. Costumes Elisabeth Tavernier, Edwige Morel d'Arleux. Music Claude Debussy. Production design Francois Abelanet. Running time:1 hour, 46 minutes.

In limited release.

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