"Red Lights" is a French psychological thriller about alcoholism, road rage and deadly hitchhikers--a summer holiday drive that slowly turns into an absolute nightmare.
Antoine is a shrewdly drawn, instantly recognizable character: a nervous, balding, ratty-featured salesman trying to patch things up with his wife Helene (Carole Bouquet) on a long-planned drive to pick up their kids at summer camp. But Helene is so beautiful and accomplished--and accommodating--that she drives the just-as-bright but more ordinary-looking Antoine nuts.
He begins drinking in secret before they leave and tipples at rest stops as they drive. His crescendo of alcoholism swells further after he swerves off the packed main highway for a new route which leaves them seemingly stranded, lost in the gathering darkness and both mad as hell.
Then--after a verbally violent tiff in which Antoine leaves his wife and sadistically stalks off to a bar clutching the car-keys--he returns to find Helene missing. Scared, he searches the dark road, tries desperately to beat the nearby train to its next station and then, stopping for more booze, makes his worst mistake. Ignoring radio warnings about an escaped convict/murderer, he picks up a tall, hulking, oddly phlegmatic guy (Vincent Deniard) who mysteriously never takes one hand out of his pants.
The killer? Or one of the alcoholic fantasies now crowding into Antoine's brain? Whatever the truth, the well-meaning but self-destructive Antoine now plucks the flower of his dissolution and madness, a blissed-out smile spreading over his face as he drives into darkness.
"Red Nights," like Antoine himself --or like Darroussin, the terrific actor who plays him--is outwardly average-looking, but inwardly turbulent and fascinating. You watch this movie, hanging on very word, every moment. One stationary scene of Antoine making a series of frantic phone calls packs more tension than all the car-chases and gunfights I've seen for months.
The film's deliberately gritty, unremarkable look contributes to its strange, transfixing effect. We are never distracted by a pretty shot or even (despite the radiant Bouquet) by a pretty face. Instead, the steady disintegration of Antoine and his and Helene's final, odd and unpredictable fate, hold us in a vise. Like Jean-Luc Godard in the 1967 radical classic "Weekend," Kahn turns a typical French vacation highway gridlock into a hell-on-earth with no seeming exit but death. But here the nightmare is more natural and plausible: something, we keep feeling, that might possibly happen in life.
And well it might. The sights, sounds and traffic in "Red Lights" are oppressively ordinary; the people are unnervingly real. That reality doubles the suspense we might feel in a more slickly made but thinly plotted thriller. When you watch this movie, keep your eyes on the road as night keeps falling. But also, keep your eyes on the driver: sweating on the brink, dying for a drink, racing toward the abyss.
Directed by Cedric Kahn; written by Khan, Laurence Ferreira-Barbosa with Gilles Marchand, based on a novel by Georges Simenon; photographed by Patrick Blossier; edited by Yann Dedet; production designed by Francois Abelanet; music by Claude Debussy ("Nuages" from "Nocturnes"), Arvo Part; produced by Patrick Godeau. In French, with English subtitles. A Wellspring release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:46. No MPAA rating. Adult. (language, violence).
Antoine Dunan - Jean-Pierre Darroussin
Helene Dunan - Carole Bouquet
Fugitive/Hitchhiker - Vincent Deniard
Waitress - Carline Paul
Inspector Levet - Jean-Pierre Gos