Years ago, in another lifetime, I had a bitter argument with a girlfriend as we were driving across town one evening. Though I don't remember the issue, we were both absolutely furious. And at a determinative point in our relationship, she declared that she would not ride another minute with me and demanded that I pull the car over and let her out. As angry as she, I did so. She got out of the car and slammed the door. What she expected me to do, I don't know, but what I did was foolish and mean. I drove off with a screech of tires. It didn't take me long to come to my senses. Two blocks later I circled around to pick her up, a maneuver that required two U-turns into heavy traffic. But when I got back to the spot I'd left her, she was gone. As it happens, she caught a passing bus and went to a friend's house where she stayed the night. But I was in a panic. Cities aren't places decent people abandon their friends after dark. Anything could have happened to her, and anything that might have would have been my fault. This experience makes me an especially receptive audience for Cédric Kahn's drama, Red Lights.
Adapted from the novel by Georges Simenon, Red Lights is a fiercely claustrophobic study of a French marriage in crisis. Huge stretches of it are silent, punctuated with bitter clips of irritable dialogue. Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) works at an insurance company where no one seems to mind if he knocks off a little early. Tellingly, a co-worker invites him for a drink, but he declares he's meeting his wife, Helene (Carole Bouquet), and together they are driving into the countryside to fetch their two children from camp. Their rendezvous is set for a bar, and the wife is (we gather, habitually) late. We can measure the extent of her tardiness by the three beers Antoine consumes while waiting. He seems desperate to fill himself with alcohol, drinking down each glass at a single draught.
When we first see Helene from a distance, in animated and obviously fond conversation with a man, we think she's having an affair. Maybe she is, but if so, we never learn. What we discover is that the cracks in this couple's marriage are more fundamental than those necessarily manifest in sexual infidelity. Helene is a high-powered attorney who works long hours and handles important cases. She's so valued at her firm that her partners came to her house not long after the birth of one of her children to beg her to return to work. Whatever the balance in their relationship when they married, Helene's career has evidently proved far more successful than Antoine's, and he resents it.
In a slow boil, only immediately because she is late, Antoine begins to pick fights over things Helene says or things she doesn't. He gets lost, refuses to ask directions, and repeatedly stops at bars to down double Scotches. He doesn't slur his words, but he is obviously increasingly drunk. Finally, Helene warns him that if he goes into one more bar she will go on without him. Antoine sneers, marches inside and slams down another drink. When he returns to the car, she's gone. The rest of the film involves his desperate attempt to find her. As a couple, they have reached a turning point, and even if reunited, Antoine can sense that their relationship will be altered forever.
All of this works quite well and rings true. The picture does take a wrong turn, however, when Antoine agrees to give a lift to a hitchhiker named Christophe Mantana (Vincent Deniard). Coupled with overheard TV reports about an escaped convict, Mantana's habit of covering his head with a hood, and the hitchhiker's sheer hulking size, this development certainly adds a chilling element of menace. What's this guy up to? Is Antoine in danger? But the whole long sequence in which Christophe appears seems a diversion from the film's core story about how the tiniest of decisions can change everything. The hitchhiker's actions aren't consistent from one scene to the next, and a late revelation concerning his whereabouts before joining Antoine stretch credulity beyond the snapping point. Moreover, certain cuts meant to startle and deceive play as far too reminiscent of B-grade American thrillers.
The Christophe episode aside, Red Lights is involving and instructive. And much credit must be given to the film's two central players. Bouquet makes Helene vivacious in a way that makes her professional success entirely credible. At the same time, Helene exhibits an iciness that communicates her contempt for Antoine's behavior without requiring any words. In short, we can quickly see why Antoine would cherish and hate her all at once. Darroussin's performance is more impressive still. He makes Antoine pathetically small and infuriatingly reckless, yet keeps us rooting for him. And that's some keen trick.
- Cruisin' for a bruisin': Helene (Carole Bouquet) hen-pecks husband Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) in the thriller Red Lights, part of this weekend's French Film Festival at the Prytania.