When Antoine Dunant (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) takes his second drink in Red Lights
the audience should take it as a joke. Antoine is waiting in a bar for his wife to get off work so they can begin their summer vacation by driving from Paris to Bordeaux to pick up their children. Hélèn (Carole Bouqet), his wife, is late, very late. So Antoine polishes off his first drink, calls her on his cell, and listens to her repeat she’s coming, she’s coming. Director Cédric Kahn cuts to Antoine downing another glass of beer in one long swallow. Then he cuts again; the glass is refilled and Antoine is finishing off his third beer. Cue snickers. But after Hélèn finally arrives and the couple set out on their trip one realizes that Antoine is heading out on a long drive with three beers in his belly. Suddenly this dryly humorous film assumes a dangerous mood and darker comment on Antoine’s life. He tells his wife he is going out to get gas and instead downs a double scotch. Pit stops on the road are not so much for going to the bathroom as it is to covertly scarf down another spot of drink. Traffic piles up, Antointe’s tension begins to mount, and his wife, taking a cue from his belligerent attitude, begins to quarrel with him. The two have a spat, and when Antoine returns to his car after yet another bar-stop he finds his wife gone and a note telling him she is taking the train to Bordeaux.
Thus begins Cédric Kahn’s Red Light
, a deftly paced and enjoyably cross-genre take on a man’s frustration with his life and himself. Kahn really excels at using subtle technique to convey the film’s ever increasing indistinct claustrophobia of aggravation and dissatisfaction on a lone highway. He does not so much use long-takes as he structures his film around long scenes
. When Antoine begins to get irritated in the traffic Kahn, working off the novel by Georges Simenon with the help of Gilles Marchand and Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, refuses to leave the increasingly tense atmosphere of the car. The sequence seems to last forever. Indeed, part of the allure of this martial strife turned thriller is that the whole film resonates with Antoine’s experience of the car ride being wearisome, futile, and emotionally immobile despite all the traveling. This is not to say the film has any of these qualities, and the principle reason for that is actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin, whose state of mind fluctuates so naturally as he gets more and more drunk that the subtle changes in Antoine’s hunched over, passive demeanor of a deadened white-collar worker provides the dynamism that the film-resolutely stuck in and around Antoine’s car trip-cannot have.
From the slightly unsettling, Herrmann-esque use of extracts from Debussy’s Nocturnes
, to Darroussin’s flaccid, almost charming sluggishness, and Kahn’s dedication to keeping the film’s pace in tandem with Antoine’s helplessness, emerges an appropriately styled, low-key, and constantly intriguing film. That Red Lights
, working from its source novel, indulges into some pat, violent plot turns and an explicitly easy emotional ending seems beyond the point when the majority of Antoine’s journey exudes simple, effective metaphors of the weak self-esteem and helplessness of some men, from traffic jams and police roadblocks to the mysterious disappearance of his wife, and the danger both of traveling alone at night and male companionship. The work is no grandiose masterpiece of self-aware ineffectualness, but the film rides its lead performance and unusual pacing to the umpteenth degree, reaping much tension and male insight from its simple, everyday situation.