(director/writer: Cédric Kahn; screenwriters: from the book by Georges Simenon/Gilles Marchand/Laurence Ferreira Barbosa; cinematographer: Patrick Blossier; editor: Yan Dedet; music: Arvo Pärt; cast: Jean-Pierre Darroussin (Antoine Dunan), Carole Bouquet (Hélène Dunan), Vincent Deniard (Man on the Run), Charline Paul (Waitress), Jean-Pierre Gros (Inspector Levet); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Patrick Godeau; Wellspring Media; 2004-France-in French with English subtitles)

“One weird movie.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cédric Kahn’s (“Too Much Happiness”/”L’Ennui”/”Roberto Succo”) brilliant Hitchcockian suspense story remains as gripping as a nightmare and as well-crafted as a classic old-fashioned thriller. It remains as tense and foreboding as a nightmare throughout, even as our panicky nebbish hero comes up for daylight and wonders what has he done to his conventional married life that night that changed things forever by his uncharacteristic act of taking a detour off the main road. It then concludes with the nightmare vanishing with a new day and the thriller turns back into the family drama it began as. The thriller becomes resolved as some kind of marital litmus test of the husband’s manliness and the wife’s femininity. Though it draws to a feasible and pleasing conclusion it, nevertheless, can’t help losing that dark edge when it was a road movie.

Writers Gilles Marchand and Laurence Ferreira Barbosa adapt the 1953 novel by Belgian-born crime writer Georges Simenon (he’s written 100 books), which was set in the States over the busy Labor Day weekend where a couple is driving from New York City to rural Maine, but Kahn instead has the professional couple drive south from Paris in the evening to pickup their two children from summer camp the next morning.

They are a middle-aged couple experiencing domestic problems that are intensified over the anticipated long drive ahead, as the TV points out how the weekend traffic will be heavy and that many accidents are projected. The weary looking, frumpy and baldish Antoine Dunan (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who works in an insurance office as a salesman, is upset that his more successful beautiful corporate lawyer wife Hélène (Carole Bouquet) is late meeting him in the cafe. He’s irritated as he calls her on his cell phone to say she’s already fifteen minutes later than their arranged 5 p.m. meeting. Antoine starts drinking a few beers while waiting, and when they go back to the apartment he sneaks in a few more whiskeys before they get started in the early evening. Upset that they are caught in a traffic jam and feeling belittled that she dared criticize his driving, Antoine acts like a belligerent drunken jerk and picks a fight with her. Meanwhile the dark crowded road looks like a scene out of hell, and the radio broadcasts bring alarming news that a dangerous prisoner escaped from LeMans. After Antoine stops at one sleazy bar for a double-whiskey, he then becomes so impatient with the traffic delays and roadblocks that he takes a detour. This brings out into the open both their pent up angers, as the insecure and emasculated hubby and the uppity castrating wifey have a spat. When the ‘road rage’ affected Antoine stops at a bar in Tours, Hélène threatens to drive on alone if he goes in for a drink–warning him that he can take the train. He responds by taking the keys. When he comes out of the bar, his wife is gone leaving a note on the seat that she took the train. A now worried Antoine races to the train station, but he’s too late. He then tries to catch her at the next stop but also misses the Bordeaux-bound train, so the thirsty and disoriented weasel stumbles into a nearby bar. There, he tries to buy a drink for a dangerous hulking young man (Vincent Deniard), who refuses to speak while Antoine obnoxiously never stops talking. The tall stranger later approaches Antoine in the dark parking lot, wearing a hood and keeping one hand in his pocket while asking for a ride. By this time Antoine is wasted and senses no danger (or, perhaps, he wants to prove his manhood by showing that he’s not scared), and waves the hitch-hiker into his luxury Rover. It’s not too long afterwards that Antoine suspects that his rider is the escaped convict, and the nightmare setup turns into a real nightmare.

All this nightmarish nihilistic stuff is amazing to behold. It’s only too bad that the ending was a let down, or, rather, couldn’t match the rest of the film in grit. But this is still one weird film, with many memorable scenes and some tingling Debussy music. I can’t get the image of Antoine out of my mind as he’s frantically calling from a café to various train stations, hospitals and police stations about his missing wife. Also, the realization that Antoine, the film’s detestable bourgeois hero, wishes to identify with the Man On The Run, who has a tattoo on his wrist that only the bartender sees.

Red Lights Poster