Judge Russell Engebretson thinks the director of this French suspense film could pull off another "color" trilogy if he follows up with the sequels Amber Means Floor It and It's Green, That's Why They're Honking.
"The devil's on vacation with you. Let it all out."
Red Lights—a subtitled French suspense film based on a novel by Georges Simeon—generates escalating tension by deftly intertwining a trio of potentially frightening subjects: alcoholism, driving, and marriage.
Facts of the Case
Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, The Taste of Others) and his wife Hélène (Carole Bouquet, Welcome to the Roses) plan to leave Paris on an overnight drive to the South of France to pick up their children from summer camp, then continue to the Basque country to visit his in-laws. After work, Antoine knocks back several beers as he impatiently waits for his wife to show up at their rendezvous, and watches a TV commentator who is citing auto fatality statistics from last year's holiday. Hélène, held up at work, arrives late, and she suggests they go back to their apartment so she can shower and pack. Later she decides they might as well eat before leaving, reasoning that the traffic will have thinned out.
On the highway Antoine casts his wife irritable sidelong glances, engages in terse conversation, and drives in a frighteningly reckless manner—tailgating, speeding, and passing other drivers when oncoming traffic is too close. Hélène does her tactful best to ignore her husband's passive-aggressive hostility. He reacts to his wife's taciturnity with increasing resentment, and exits the freeway to escape the slow traffic. When Hélène asks what he is doing, he only says, "I have to move." Antoine's decision to leave the highway and take the back roads proves to be a serious mistake that will lead to a nightmarish journey with life-altering consequences for the couple.
Continuing the summary would spoil the movie, which is probably best viewed with little foreknowledge of the plot. I don't mean to imply that the story boasts a major revelation comparable to The Sixth Sense, but much of the film's edginess derives from a nagging feeling of not quite knowing what the hell is going on.
Comparison of Red Lights to a Hitchcock movie is inevitable: The story is slow and thoughtful, displaying a minimum of violence (although there is one intense scene that is moderately graphic); and it does not reveal all its secrets until the finale. But there are things going on in director Cédric Kahn's quirky thriller that are not specific to Hitchcock's style—or American suspense movies in general. Red Lights (in common with many French films, whether comedy or drama) presents us with believable, well-rounded characters, then probes their motivations and allows events to be driven by the choices they make. Sometimes the heavy-handed use of psychological drama can detract from a story line—or, worse, morph into melodrama—but here it works to ratchet up the tension with every verbal jab and punch. After all, who knows one another's weaknesses better than a middle-aged married couple? And who is more ruthless than a self-pitying, intoxicated spouse nurturing an imagined wound?
The red lights of the title refer specifically to the drinking establishments along the back roads where Antoine makes his frequent alcoholic pit stops. Symbolically, the red lights are stoplights and warning lights along the highway (most of the movie takes place on the road) that hint at the laws and ethical limits that people share and obey, and at what happens when those limits are violated. There is symbolism galore throughout the film, and veiled commentary on the underlying madness of 21st-century urban life—for example, the stark contrast between the car-choked, cold urban landscape of Paris (very different from the touristy, purposefully nostalgic vision displayed in Amélie) and the peaceful, tree-lined country road of the film's parting shot. The script masterfully wrangles its metaphorical allusions into the service of the story; the viewer does not need to analyze the movie in a scholarly fashion to enjoy the show, but the literary underpinnings deliver a richer viewing experience. The acting, I should add, is faultless; from the minor actors to the major players, everyone involved deserves kudos. Jean-Pierre Darroussin especially, who is in every scene, gives such a natural, compelling performance, I forgot I was watching an actor playing a role.
The meager offering of extras includes five trailers, filmographies of the director and the two major actors, and a couple of web links. I was disappointed that the movie did not include a director's commentary or at least a featurette; it deserves something beyond a barebones release.
The DVD transfer is not spectacular, but it is very good, with a pleasing filmlike appearance and solid colors. There are a large number of night scenes, and they all show good contrast without too much loss of shadow detail. The Dolby 5.1 surround is also quite good: The whooshing of passing cars, muffled tire sounds, and the whole matrix of traffic noise are expertly conveyed. The music soundtrack, Debussy's impressionistic Nuages, sounds lush and (sometimes ironically) romantic. Dialogue is clear, but unless you speak French that is probably only of aesthetic importance. The yellow subtitles are easy to read and seem to be a good translation.
If you have read this far, you know that Red Lights is not an action-packed thriller full of gunplay and car chases. The suspense is intense but subtle, conveyed mainly through dialogue, moody cinematography, and skillful editing. The movie delivers a happy ending of sorts, which on first viewing I found forced and unrealistic in light of what happens to the characters. After mulling things over, however, and watching it again, it seemed a proper way to wind things up. Your mileage may vary.
The movie is guilty only of inflicting low-level dread that may exacerbate stomach ulcer problems, which is perfectly acceptable behavior for the suspense genre. Case dismissed.
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