Red Lights, directed by Cédric Kahn from a 1953 novel by the most prolific of crime writers, Belgian-born Georges Simenon, is a satisfyingly well-wrought, old-school thriller: Character drives the plot, literally.
The movie, shown at the last Tribeca Film Festival, opens as if Kahn were imagining Simenon’s notoriously pre-planned personal world: The look is obsessionally ordered—geometric patterns, slow zooms, and symmetrical compositions. The music is lifted from Debussy; the protagonist is an edgy, irritable, fearful little man (character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin) with a transparently “superior” wife (elegant Carole Bouquet, as ever, that obscure object of desire). Seized by compulsion as the two are leaving Paris to retrieve their children from summer camp, the husband upends his world and dumps his wife in the mire.
There’s a premonition of death on the road (and news about an escaped con), as the irately befuddled Darroussin—who has been secretly drinking for several hours—is compelled to deal with traffic, poor signage, and an increasingly frosty spouse. Rarely has the family car been so fraught an arena for conjugal angst. Hubby, however shit-faced, insists on driving. But after one emergency refueling stop too many, he returns to the car to discover a note from his fed-up wife explaining that she has decided to continue on by train. Let the games begin, and the genie escape from the bottle. Red Lights is, in some respects, an exceedingly mordant comedy. Darroussin’s drunken journey to the end of the night, much of which was shot in the studio, grows increasingly oneiric: The bars are more outré, the strangers more mysterious, the roadblocks more ominous, and the rants more wildly inebriated.
Strategic blackouts, spooky dreams, and all, there’s actually a structural logic to Darroussin’s fantastic—perhaps even imaginary—bender. Red Lights smoothly shifts gears and handles a few hairpin plot turns as Kahn wrings maximum suspense from his nebbish hero’s megalomaniacal night of splendor. The morning after is viscerally cruel, and there’s a showstopping scene in which the hopelessly hungover Darroussin is forced to think fast and fight his escalating panic through a long series of phone calls made from a rural café. (Almost never off-screen Darroussin imbues the movie with a powerful sense of dry mouth and flop sweat.)
While Red Lights succeeds in suggesting rural France as one drink away from the heart of darkness, Simenon’s novel was actually set in the U.S. over the Labor Day weekend. Driving from New York City to Maine, the squabbling couple has its meltdown on the dread I-95 somewhere outside of Providence (“He was surprised to find it a bright and pleasant town”). But although Kahn transposes Red Lights‘ setting to France, he revises Simenon to produce what seems, paradoxically, a more Americanized story. The movie’s narrative is stronger and its hero is morally improved by undergoing a manly rite of passage. The eventual triumph is more clear-cut.
Darroussin’s escapade is, in the grand tradition of Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, an escape from feminizing civilization to begin again on some all-male frontier—complete with resident savage. Violence is a form of self-realization, and innocence is something that can be retaken by force.