Splendidly sinuous twister “Red Lights” sees Gallic helmer Cedric Kahn (“Roberto Succo”) take his game to the next level with this inky comic thriller. Superficially reminiscent of fellow countryman Claude Chabrol’s Hitchcockian oeuvre, Kahn imbues a distinctive streak of the absurd and droll, visual wit into this story of an ordinary schlemiel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) whose road trip with his wife (Carole Bouquet) takes a nasty turn. Pic could be retitled “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday From Hell.” Sporting spot-on perfs and crossover potential, pic could have rich road ahead for upscale distribs, although cruel tone may not be to all auds’ taste.
Pic starts slowly, but repays patience. In Paris, insurance salesman Antoine Dunan (Darroussin) prepares for a trip with his corporate lawyer wife Helene (Bouquet) to pick up their two kids (never seen) from summer camp in the South, near Bordeaux. Helene is late meeting Antoine after work, and he starts hitting the booze, while TV reports warn that two million people will be taking to the road this summer holiday weekend, a chilling thought for anyone who has driven in France or seen Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend.” Moreover, a highly dangerous criminal has escaped from Le Mans prison, and roadblocks are in place.
At first in high spirits, the couple start sniping at each other as tensions in their relationship bubble to the surface. Antoine’s drinking seems prompted by a lack of self-esteem, exacerbated by his feeling unmanned by Helene’s greater professional success. Frustrated by the freeway, he takes a byway detour, much to Helene’s displeasure, and leaves her in the car as he stops for a drink.
Once they’re back on the road, the bickering escalates, with Antoine blaming her for his drinking, which he stops to continue at yet another tavern. This time, Helene warns that she won’t be there when he gets back, but he defies her and goes into the bar, taking the car keys. There, a drunk English hippie warns that Antoine is “going in the wrong direction,” something the aud is starting to sense on a deeper level. When he gets back to the car, Helene is gone, having left a note saying she’s taking the train.
It’s at this point, about 40 minutes into the film, that the plot’s pleasing twists — including a dangerous hitchhiker, Antoine’s repeated attempts to find Helene and, natch more booze –start coming thick and fast; in one suspenseful scene juiced with cruel laughs, helmer mixes his de Palma with a dash of Jacques Tati.
Right up to the bittersweet conclusion, Kahn deftly lays doubt in the aud’s mind about what might have occurred, even suggesting through a dream sequence that everything is happening in Antoine’s head. Ultimate revelation rests on slightly implausible coincidence, which nevertheless makes much deeper and psychological sense. Kahn leaves the aud with jagged feeling of not-quite closure between Helene and Antoine.
Kahn’s direction is aces; he’s learned the tricks from the masters of suspense and noir and added a spaced out sensibility of his own. Helmer’s taste for enigmatic plot lacunas and surreal detail, displayed well already in his previous pics, true-crime drama “Roberto Succo” and the erotic “Ennui,” feels more organically knitted into this adaptation of Gallic thriller-writer Georges Simenon’s novel, originally set in America.
Kahngets great work from leads Bouquet, who’s hardly in it but leaves a lingering quality, and most of all Darroussin, a consistent character actor with a face like 100 miles of bad road, who carries pic effortlessly.
Tech credits are pushed to the max on what’s clearly not an abundant budget. Patrick Blossier’s lensing creates a fine sense of Hitchcock-like unreality through use of rear-projection, with shades of Kubrick coming through in Carlos Cabeceran’s eerie steadicam work. All other departments make excellent showing, while music by Debussy and Arvo Part adds a romantic, melancholy strain.