Red Lights (Feux Rouges) Review
With Hitchcockian precision, director Cédric Kahn (L’Ennui, Roberto Succo) sets the tone of Red Lights (Feux Rouges) perfectly within the first five minutes of the film. Waiting in a bar for his wife Hélène to finish up some important business so that they can head off to collect their children from a summer camp, Antoine Dunan drinks a couple of beers, while outside the traffic roars past in every direction on an intensely hot summer’s day. In this brief opening scene, the film introduces the tension between a couple that is intensified by the combination of heat, alcohol, traffic and a long journey ahead of them. All the film needs is a final explosive element to set it all off and, after an announcement on the radio that a fugitive has escaped from a nearby high-security prison, the film descends into a nightmarish sequence of events.
Wound-up and fuelled by the few drinks he has had, Antoine soon makes a minor turn-off from the congestion on main road and the film follows the course of his subsequent decline with a horrible sense of inevitably. Antoine’s unspoken resentment of his wife’s success has been building for a long time. She’s a corporate lawyer, all business lunches and phone calls with her male colleagues, while Antoine is in a dull dead-end job. Over the course of the journey and under the influence of a few whiskeys he has had at roadside cafés, Antoine begins to get some things off his chest. At one of these stops, Antoine comes back to find that his wife has disappeared into the night, leaving a note that she has gone to catch the train. From this point on, the events spiral rapidly out of control. Offering a lift to a man he meets in another bar, who seems to be concerned about the numerous road-blocks along the roadway, Antoine continues his drive through a haze of alcohol and anger.
Gilles Marchand (Qui a tué Bambi, Harry, He's Here To Help) contributes to the script based a George Simenon novel and gives the proceedings his customary sense of slightly off-key tension, dealt with by Kahn in his usual naturalistic style and not with the typical cinematic foreshadowing that would be expected for this type of thriller. Rather like his objective, ambivalent documentary-style approach on Roberto Succo, Kahn trusts in the strength of the script and the expressiveness of the cast, embellishing nothing, yet subtly insinuating a sense of unease. On the surface, things appear normal, but the underlying discordant note that is introduced early on in the film gradually undermines the normality of the situation. Jean-Pierre Darroussin is particularly superb here as Antoine – impassive on the surface, mounting resentment simmering underneath and rising to the surface as he convincingly goes though his gradual stages of deterioration. I’m less convinced by his choice of music on the soundtrack, using Debussy’s ‘Nuages’ which doesn’t really seem appropriate here, creating a gloomy mood that recalls the Mahler-esque score for the war scenes in Kurosawa’s Ran.
Georges Simenon’s original novel, although moved from its US setting, is quite faithfully adhered to, retaining on the surface the crime-thriller element, but using the genre convention of an escaped convict to draw out the psychological make-up of the male who is threatened by a more successful wife. The theme of going off the rails is introduced early in the film in more ways than one – Antoine, no longer willing to keep following the same track, conforming to his wife’s demands and needs, rejects her suggestions for the right road to take and turns off onto various side-roads to assert his own dominance. Little by little, as he becomes more and more lost and as one drink follows another, this need to assert himself comes more to the surface. It’s only then that the element of the escaped fugitive makes his appearance, figuratively representing everything that Antoine feels a real man should be – the kind of man who wouldn’t let a woman run his life, who is outside the laws that govern everyone else. The kind of man who runs through society’s red lights. The suggestion in Simenon’s novel is that Antoine regards the fugitive as part of himself (“c’était une partie de lui-même”) and this can be taken literally as an identification with a darker side of a real fugitive or it could be read as a projected personification of the resentment he harbours against his wife that has finally escaped and been brought to the surface to enact a terrible settling of scores. Kahn’s reading of the story is perhaps a little over-literal and concrete, which makes some plot twists and cinematic concessions a little harder for the viewer to accept, but the alcoholic black-hole under which the fugitive is introduced and disappears keeps the ambiguity of his existence open.
There is barely a flaw in the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The image is free of marks or damage and relatively clear and sharp, if a slight touch on the soft side. Blacks however are a little bit flat in most scenes, not showing any great detail and the same murkiness is occasionally noticeable in quite flat ochre skin tones. There are one or two very minor signs of digital artefacting, in the occasional flicker of a background or in the breaking up of some diagonal lines, but this is relatively rare.
The film comes with both Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Typically Artificial Eye provide a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix for a film that doesn’t make use of the surrounds at all, operating almost entirely on the centre speaker as a 1.0 mix. This is clearly the preferred sound mix and would be consistent with the director’s realism and avoidance of unnecessary cinematic trickery. The sound is strong and quite clear throughout.
English subtitles are optional and are clearly readable.
Interview with Cédric Kahn (21:31)
The director covers how he became interested in the book, how the script was developed, casting the actors, working in genre fiction, his influences (from Pialat to Eyes Wide Shut) and his own views on the film’s themes. The editing is choppy, cutting out the questions (the Pialat film the interviewer compares Red Lights to remains a mystery - possibly it's Nous Ne Vieillirons Pas Ensemble), but some intertitles give an indication on the subjects covered.
Interview with Jean-Pierre Darroussin (21:21)
Darroussin talks about his approach to the script and the role of Antoine, the demands it placed on him, and the decisions that were made about putting the character across on the screen. He singles out a couple of scenes and talks about how they were filmed.
Interview with Carole Bouquet (21:19)
Carole Bouquet talks about working with Cédric Kahn, her character Hélène and the off-screen presence that the character exerts despite her relatively short time in the film. She analyses the Dunan’s relationship and clearly identifies with their situation.
Theatrical Trailer (1:18)
The theatrical trailer, shown at 1.85:1 letterbox, effectively plays up the thriller element of the film.
Filmographies are provided for Cédric Kahn, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Carole Bouquet and Georges Simenon.
Despite the fact that he is working in complete Hitchcock thriller territory here, director Cédric Kahn manages for the most part to avoid the expected conventions of the genre and applies his own documentary realism to Red Lights. A realistic working of the material can work against this type of film however, confusing the audience who are looking for the expected pointers and making a literal reading of the eventual twists a little more difficult to swallow. Nevertheless, this is an intense, slow-burning crime thriller, which operates well within the genre while at the same time retaining the psychological import of one of Simenon’s best novels. The film is well presented on this Artificial Eye release with a good transfer and some in-depth interviews.