You don’t want to travel with Antoine and Hélène—they constantly bicker. You don’t want to go with them to the Basque country to pick up their children from camp, because Antoine likes to stop frequently along the road to have a whiskey. And he makes each whiskey a double.
In the beginning, “Red Lights,” the new film from Cedric Kahn, resembles “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” played out in the confines of a late-model luxury car that is all over the road. Antoine is road- rage–taking-a-huge-detour because two million other Frenchmen are also on the road with him, and the only thing that might make it tolerable is that next double scotch.
Such is the set-up of “Red Lights.” By the time Hélène and Antoine have stopped at a third tavern, she has had enough and threatens to leave with the car if Antoine heads in for a drink. He goes anyway, and when he returns, the car is still there but Hélène is gone, having left a note about taking the train the rest of the way.
Now panicky, and naturally more drunk, Antoine tries to intercept her at the train, then drives crazily to the next station, hoping to catch up with her. Frustrated, and scared, he parks at yet another bar for more hair of the dog. At this point, he meets a dark hulking stranger (Vincent Deniard) who wants a lift. Now you know Antoine is really drunk, because no one in their sober mind would ever take this latter-day Gallic Lurch to the corner store, much less all the way to Bordeaux.
Kahn sets a tone of dread throughout “Red Lights.” At first, the couple’s bickering and Antoine’s drinking are merely annoying. It is, after all, awful to see Mom and Dad fighting. But with Hélène’s vanishing acting having sent Antoine into overdrive, you can see why the hulking stranger soon becomes irritated with him. Anyone would want to hit Antoine in the face after a while. He’s that annoying. But when the tall dark stranger, who has taken over the driving, turns off into the woods, your irritation turns to pure fright.
Kahn pulls off a Hitchcock-esque thriller. Using a camera with the car’s point of view brings to mind Grace Kelly’s drive along the twisting cliffside roads above Monaco in “To Catch a Thief.” When Antoine wakes up in a cornfield, approached by a farmer, you cannot help but think of Cary Grant stranded in the Indiana farmland in “North By Northwest.”
But if Hitchcock gave you thrills, Kahn subjects you to a major case of dis-ease and fright. Early in the story, excellent rack focus shots help the viewer see Antoine’s state of mind—his anger obscures this thinking, just as the shots put Helene out of focus. The same shots keep Helene out of focus. Using the red taillights to illuminate the trees when the stranger is surely going to kill Antoine seems like a textbook case of “welcome to hell” symbolism, but then Kahn pulls the rug out from under the viewers by suddenly cutting away from the action.
Now the viewer is left with two loose ends: What happened in the woods and what’s happened to Hélène? In the final 20 minutes or so of the film, Antoine frantically tries to locate his wife, who never showed up at their children’s summer camp. It is now daylight, but Antoine and the viewers are completely in the dark. These final scenes are rather quiet, except for the sound of Antoine driving like a madman, as he, and you, wonder what’s happened to his wife.
Jean-Pierre Darroussin is amazing as Antoine, carrying the entire movie with an alcoholic rage and subsequent hangover that don’t let up. Carole Bouquet is an icy wonder as Hélène, who puts up with her husband’s nonsense, but only so far. When she takes off, the movie takes on some shades of “The Vanishing” but she’s put up with so much, you don’t blame her for fleeing into the night. Deniard’s role as the stranger is also demanding, as he talks little, the script mainly calling for him to be a brooding menace.
“Red Lights “ does what a great movie should do—keeps you riveted and guessing. Kahn keeps an anxious tension running throughout a film whose central character is a drunk careening angrily down the highways of France. Keeping an audience enthralled by such a lunatic is no easy feat. “Red Lights” might not appeal to all moviegoers, but Kahn takes a few old tales and puts a new spin on them, and is willing to take some chances. For some, movie-going doesn’t get better than this.