Feux Rouges - Red Lights
|Directed by||Cédric Khan|
Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is the sort of guy who feels more manly at the controls of a car (do I hear a chorus of "Aren't they all?"). He's a mousy Parisian midlevel insurance executive, a balding, rumpled, middle-aged, Gallic Wallace Shawn. His wife H?l?ne (Carole Bouquet) is a successful corporate lawyer. Antoine feels slights easily, especially when he's been drinking. In this movie, that is pretty much the entire time. He thinks she patronizes him. When she talks gaily to a colleague on her cell phone, he internalizes it as a deliberate slight to him. When she keeps him waiting, he sulks. And drinks. But when they take to the highway on the eve of a holiday weekend to pick up the kids from summer camp in Bordeaux, Antoine is at the wheel, hanging on grimly with both hands to this remaining symbol of masculinity. "Would you like me to drive ?" she asks. "No !" he barks.
And so they wend their way southward in an atmosphere of gathering petty hostility. News broadcasts warn of traffic jams and two million cars on the road for the weekend. The radio tells of a jailbreak at Le Mans prison, and a dangerous convict on the loose, and of roadblocks ahead. It's not long before traffic slows to a crawl. With a few whiskeys and beers already under his belt before they even hit the road, Antoine is feeling prickly. He picks little squabbles with H?l?ne, snaps at her when she makes driving suggestions, and finally swerves off the highway to chart his own course on dark back roads as the gall of the stop-and-go traffic eats into his gut and mixes with the alcohol. And when he feels the Dutch courage starting to ebb from his system, he makes a few quick stops at roadside taverns "to use the bathroom," stopping by the bar for a quick double before returning to H?l?ne in the car. Finally she tells him if he does it again she'll go on without him. So he takes the keys from the ignition and heads into a bar. And when he gets back to the car, after a couple of stiff ones, he finds a note on her seat saying she's taking the train.
He races to the station, but the train has left. He gets caught in a roadblock en route to the next stop, and misses it there too. Finally gives up, and goes to another bar. There he strikes up a conversation with a tough-looking hombre (Vincent Deniard), if a series of unanswered remarks and questions and an ingratiating "Buy-you-a-drink" can be called a conversation. The first words spoken by the glowering stranger, who materializes outside in the shadows of the parking lot, are "Can you give me a lift ?" This marks the first of several sea changes in the course charted by director C?dric Kahn ("L'Ennui", 1998) over a terrain that is tense and moody and sometimes bafflingly ambiguous. Kahn, who co-wrote the screenplay, worked from a novel by the great Georges Simenon. Simenon, interestingly enough, wrote the book while living in America in the mid-Fifties, and set it on the road from New York to Maine. Kahn's repatriation of the material slips it into the tradition of the French cinematic traffic jam pioneered by Godard's Weekend.
One of the problems the film presents is the difficulty of engaging an audience over the first long stretch when the atmosphere is edgy boredom and family squabbling. Antoine is not the sort of guy you want to be trapped in a small car with during a weekend traffic jam. It's all in the service of building the psychological atmosphere, but it can make for tedious going. When H?l?ne leaves her note and decamps for the train, there may be those among you who would like to do the same.
But stick around. Things ratchet up nicely. Alone with his surly hitchhiker, a man who fits the profile of dangerous escaped convict to a T, the Walter Mitty in Antoine surfaces, and he opens up into a bit of tough-guy swagger. Things take one unexpected turn, and then another. H?l?ne never arrives at her railway destination. Tension mounts through a series of panicky phone calls. There's a police inspector, a polite grilling. There's even a little sentiment at the end, though perhaps not enough to qualify "Red lights" as a date movie.
The French have a great affinity for Alfred Hitchcock, and their co-dependents in the American critical fraternity (I use the word with non-gender-specific looseness) are apt to play along and describe anything that combines suspense and violence and a dash of humor as Hitchcockian. To my mind this kind of description does a disservice to both parties. "Red lights" is a quirky, original piece of filmmaking, buttressed by fine acting and a Debussy score, that overcomes some pacing issues to earn the undivided attention of its audience.
© Text 2004 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be