Red Lights (Cédric Kahn, 2004)
French Title: Feux rouges
Cédric Kahn opens Red Lights with an overview of a building's floorspace, with multitudes of people passing by the intricately and geometrically designed floors, unable to recognize and appreciate what they're stepping on. Then, we are introduced to Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a balding and funny-looking man emailing his wife sweet nothings and a reminder to meet at their favorite bar at 5pm so that they can pick up their two kids on time. Everything sounds smooth and nice. Antoine arrives at the bar a bit early, orders three rounds of beer, and waits for his wife. Everything still seems nice and orderly. We do get hints that trouble might be brewing: heavy traffic and several road accidents are threatening their supposedly romantic roadtrip. Past 5pm, Antoine gets impatient and calls up his wife, who promises to be there in a bit as she has just got out of a meeting. His wife, Helene (Carole Bouquet), a lovely, intelligent-looking and tall woman, does show up, and insists that they go home as she wants to shower before leaving out of town.
Kahn's Red Lights is an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel, with the novel's American setting changed into that of France's highways and backroads. Kahn treats his material with Hitchcockian flavor, setting the mood and the tension within the confines of Antoine's vehicle, with trouble brewing not within the little space between the two major characters, but with given hints. Alongside the several road accidents, and the growing tension between the married couple, a news report of a dangerous escaped felon terrorizing the highway has been released in one of Antoine's frequent visits to liquor bars.
It's much more an examination of a hugely imbalanced marital relationship rather than a roadtrip thriller. Half of the film shows an excitingly staged yet calmly controlled marital bickering between the two. It's an obvious predicament. The husband is clearly insecure. He's ugly, a mere insurance salesman compared to his lovely wife who also turns out to be a partner at a corporate law firm. Antoine gets pissed when his wife is late for a quarter of an hour, as if that fifteen minutes is time that his wife unduly advantaged herself of from the supposed equality of the marriage. He looks at his wife taking a shower, her beautiful body outlined in the frosted glass of the shower's divisions.
Again, she's beautiful while he's balding. The only time he's the boss is when he's the driver, but even there, he has to take in suggestions, criticisms, and commentaries from his wife telling him what road to use, where to go and what not to do. He tries to forget the great injustices of the marriage and drowns himself a glass of double scotch too many, until his wife decides to just take the train and leave her husband wallowing his self pity with alcohol. Kahn brilliantly observes the relationship with infused tension, which makes for great viewing despite the fact that nothing much happens, or if something does happen, it is within the confines of the car.
The second half of the film shows Antoine taking in a man (Vincent Deniard) he met in the bar, the dangerous escaped criminal. At first the criminal is a reserved fellow, pretty much in control compared to the drunk husband. Funnily, Kahn almost depicts the criminal as a replacement for the wife, a sponge for all the husband's marital angst and philosophical musings. Then in absurd fashion, Antoine's drunkenness takes in control when he accidentally drives out of the road, giving the man control of the car. The film takes the conventional route here, and it's one of the few tense moments of the film that actually didn't give me the chills and thrills of the first half. Everything goes down from there. The film ends in disappointment, but that doesn't remove the fact that the film has interesting highlights that keep it from being merely ordinary in the most Hollywood sense. It's actually very brilliant, despite the particularly inappropriately placed pleasing finale.