Dir: Cedric Kahn. France. 2003. 106 mins.
Imagine a bleak and edgy feature-length episode of Mr Bean co-directed by Robert Bresson and Vincent Gallo. Then imagine that it's actually rather good. Dark and unconventional, this road thriller by Roberto Succo director Cedric Kahn gets under the skin in ways that it's not easy to rationalise, and which have little to do with textbook Hollywood script structure. The film demands commitment from its audience, especially during the initial slow build to the dramatic core. But Kahn's grasp of dramatic timing and a standout performance by Robert Guediguian regular Jean-Pierre Darroussin as a man slowly going off the rails (and, briefly, off the road) in the course of a long night's drive through France will win over the waverers, and with the strong critical response that Red Lights can be expected to generate, it should be a solid performer on the arthouse circuit.
The film opens with crane shots of a Paris that is contemporary but alienating, a kind of live-action architectural blueprint in which the people are the size of insects. Unsettled, we home in on Antoine (Darroussin), a frazzled middle-aged insurance clerk who at the end of a long week in the office is about to drive down to the French Basque country with his wife, successful corporate lawyer Helene (Carole Bouquet); they plan to pick up their two kids from summer camp before heading to their beachside holiday home. They are not alone: around two million other people are on the roads on this end-of-July weekend, and most of them are heading south.
Antoine has already started drinking heavily before departure, and tension flares up between the couple almost immediately. With his droll, lived-in face, Darroussin - who features in almost every frame - is a perfect choice for this little man who goes into a masochistic nosedive, revelling in his moral cowardice and his resentment of his wife's success, and using a succession of double whiskies and some dangerously fast driving to fuel his absurd conceit that he is letting his hair down and becoming a 'real man'.
All the while the tension builds. We see a lot of driving, and other cars; we see into the car as the couple bitch, we see the view out of lights and lines and signs flashing by. Kahn is willing to run the risk of boring us with continuity shots: but we soon realise that there is a lot more than continuity going on. Darkness is falling, a man is losing control, a relationship is being pushed to breaking point, and all the while the night is becoming less of a real place and more of an eerie limbo, out of time and off the map, in which the old rules do not apply.
The only welcoming lights are those that point to bars; but when Antoine gives into temptation for the second time, his wife leaves the car and heads for the nearest train station to continue her journey alone. Meanwhile, the radio crackles out the news that a dangerous escaped prisoner is heading south.
Kahn has more than adapted the Simenon novel, which was originally set in the States; he has made the story his own by paring it down to the bones, fitting it to the two leads (who signed on to the project at an early stage) and giving it a striking visual key that develops a kind of perverse lyricism out of glaring lights and pallid faces and desolately ordinary nightscapes. The music too - a slow, sombre classical theme from Debussy - helps make the familiar strange.
But perhaps the best thing about Red Lights is Kahn's firm but unorthodox grasp of tone. Even as Antoine descends into madness, the director allows comedy into the mix. His lightness of touch is at its most effective in a long scene in a rural bar, where Antoine makes a frustrating series of phone calls, trying desperately to find out what happened to his wife. Not to cut a single one of these calls is a courageous move, but exactly the right one, as the scene slowly builds to a small victory that becomes the turning-point of Antoine's tragic parabola; and the bright, smart bar girl who provides helpful suggestions and the first food Antoine has eaten for hours is the down-to-earth angelic catalyst of this long-awaited upturn.
Prod co: Aliceleo
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Exec prod: Francoise Galfre
Prod: Patrick Godeau
Scr: Cedric Kahn, Laurence Ferreira-Barbosa, based on the novel by Georges Simenon
Cinematography: Patrick Blossier
Prod des: Francois Abelanet
Ed: Yann Dedet
Main cast: Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Carole Bouquet, Vincent Deniard