Feux rouges (2004)
“Always keep your eyes on the road”
Director: Cedric Kahn
Cast: Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Carole Bouquet, Vincent Deniard
Synopsis: Antoine and Helene drive to South France to return their kids from a holiday camp. The traffic is dense and the atmosphere growingly tense; he is an alcoholic and becomes increasingly drunk…
Whether viewed as an allegorical tale about men’s need for the control they feel is threatened by the ascendancy of women (in such areas as law, for example), an arty study of the blurring of fantasy with reality, or simply as a straightforward thriller that focuses on the fragility of what we have and take for granted, and how quickly it can be stolen from us, Red Lights is a film that doesn’t quite succeed in any of its potential interpretations.
Jean-Pierre Darroussin, normally a supporting actor, is elevated to the status of leading man in the part of Antoine, an insurance clerk with a successful lawyer wife (Carole Bouquet) and a drinking problem apparently exacerbated by his feelings of inadequacy. Their marriage seems to be one that was played out long before we meet them on the day they drive to Bourdeaux to collect their two children from summer camp. There is no intimacy between them, and Antoine seems transfixed by his wife’s body as she showers, suggesting their sex life is a thing of the past. Antoine drinks during the road trip strewn with traffic jams and wrong turns, and it is a journey that seems to mirror his inexorable descent into his own personal hell as he drunkenly snipes at his wife to the point where she chooses to continue the journey by train rather than stay with him. It’s a decision that has tragic consequences for them both…
There’s a deliberate ambiguity in this film about what is taking place on the screen that tends to irritate more than intrigue, and plot holes that can only be explained away by attributing the most audacious interpretation to writer/director Cedric Kahn’s intentions. He toys with the viewer’s sympathies at times in much the same way that Hitchcock used to but with far less skill or success, and the fact that Antoine is such an unmitigated jerk for much of the film simply makes it difficult for the viewer to relate or empathise with his situation. While we might care about what exactly has happened to his wife Helene — and Kahn does draw out the answers to these questions in a way that is extremely suspenseful — we’re not really moved by Antoine’s growing concern for her safety, or the peril in which he — perhaps knowingly — places himself. There is a suggestion that the sequence in which he gives a lift to an escaped convict is simply Antoine’s drunken fantasy/dream which, while explaining away such discrepancies as why they are waved through a road block and why the police later find no evidence of the stranger’s presence in the car, is carried off in such an oblique manner that it comes across as a cheat on the viewer. Sure, it means there is a degree of thought and concentration required on the part of the audience, which is always a good thing, but when the reward for such effort is as scant as it is here you wonder whether it’s worth the effort.
Darroussin and Bouquet both give terrific performances, and Kahn does manage to deliver a couple of quietly effective set-pieces but, for the most part, the storyline is beset with so many problems that it eventually overwhelms much of the good things to be found.