Red Lights: The Portrait of a Marriage by Guy Savage
“I’ll drive nicely, carefully, without going off the tracks. You know which tracks I mean?”
Some married couples shouldn’t go on holiday together, and that rapidly becomes apparent in the French neo-noir thriller Red Lights (Feux Rouges). The film is from director Cedric Kahn whose credits include L’Ennui—a story of sexual obsession and Roberto Succo—a tale based on the life and crimes of a psychopathic killer. Red Lights is a subtle exploration of the power struggle in a troubled marriage set against the couple’s explosive clash with a violent criminal.
When Red Lights begins, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) e-mails his wife, lawyer Helene (played by former model Carole Bouquet) from his office. It’s a giddy, romantic e-mail in which Antoine confesses that he feels like he’s on his “first date.” Antoine and Helene have arranged to meet at 5 pm, with the plan to drive into the country to pick up their two children from camp. Then they intend to stay with Helene’s parents for their annual holiday, but things begin to go wrong immediately. Although the idea was to get a head start on the more than 2 million cars on the road for the holiday weekend, one delay after another occurs. Antoine broods in a café while he waits for Helene to arrive. The romanticism of Antoine’s e-mail fades into the background as he seethes at Helene’s tardiness.
Further delays in the shape of a late dinner and long-delayed packing push back the departure time even further. There’s the sense that both Antoine and Helene are deliberately delaying getting into the car. After one flash of emotional disconnect, Antoine begins hitting the booze, and by the time they finally get on the road, there’s already a degree of tension. The film foreshadows disaster through continual radio broadcasts of horrific car accidents, a scene of a stalled car smoking on the side of the road, and the unsettling news that a violent criminal has escaped from prison and is on the loose somewhere in the area.
As evening sets in, the atmosphere in the car becomes tense. A subtle game is afoot with Antoine in the power seat as the driver, and Helene as the long-suffering recipient of his erratic behavior. Stuck together in that small space, even the selection of the radio station has overtones that lead back to their troubled marriage. Antoine’s feelings of inferiority, fed by jealousy morph into almost devilish delight at his ability to annoy Helene. Helene, on the other hand, assumes icy disapproval and disdain, and this naturally shrivels her husband’s ego, goading him even further. As the psychological game between this unhappily married couple continues, Antoine’s desire for constant whisky refills needles Helene beyond endurance. Since piercing Helene’s armor of icy remoteness translates into a score for Antoine, he’s blithely unconcerned with his descent into drunkenness. Stopping at every bar’s beckoning neon sign, he continues to down double whiskies with alarming rapidity knowing full well that he’s pushing his wife to the brink.
Antoine imagines, however, that because he has the car keys, he has the power position. After stopping at yet another bar, Helene threatens to leave if Antoine goes inside. Thinking he’s checkmated Helene’s protests, Antoine cockily grabs the keys and swaggers into the bar. When he returns, Helene has vanished….
Red Lights is a faithful adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel; it is one of the few Simenon novels set in America, but the film version is set in France. Simenon, an extremely prolific writer is perhaps best remembered for his series of Maigret novels, but he also penned the dark, psychologically complex romans durs (a literal translation—‘hard novels’), perfect material for noir film. A common theme in the romans durs is the story of a middle-aged man, middle-class and respectable who steps out of the bounds of his normal life into the shadowy netherworld habituated by drifters, criminals, and prostitutes. This main character often discovers that his previous life of conformity is not a matter of choice but a matter of conditioning. Antoine is one such character. Away from the confines of his insurance company cubicle, behind the wheel of a car, and disinhibited by alcohol, he goes “off the tracks.” Reversing the marital power roles in the close confinement of the car, he keeps feeding his wife’s disapproval and becomes giddy with his perceived triumphs.
But when Antoine’s wife disappears, he flips back into his husbandly role, charging after a departing train and irrationally screaming as it leaves the station. As Antoine searches in the night for his missing wife, he picks up a husky young drifter—a violent escaped prisoner (Vincent Deniard). At first it’s not clear if Antoine is aware of his passenger’s identity, but as Antoine negotiates various roadblocks, his triumph at evading the police reveals that he is fully aware that his passenger is a fugitive. He clearly worships the prisoner equating heroic masculinity with violence, the rejection of domesticity, and the defiance of authority. Calling the criminal a “prince among men,” and a “real man,” Antoine fawns and grovels. There’s an irony here. Antoine rejected his inferior position with his wife arguing that he was sick of “playing the good little doggie,” yet the criminal eventually sickened by Antoine’s groveling drunken homage also compares Antoine to his dog.
One section of the film includes Hitchcockian style camera shots with close ups of Antoine driving drunkenly through the night, sporting a beatific, idiotic grin delighted with the neon lights blinking off in the distance. This is a gorgeous scene that creates a dream-like gliding sensation as Antoine drives through the darkness, oblivious to his danger and his missing wife’s fate. Other scenes show neon signs beckoning to travelers in the night, shadows on the lonely road, moths dancing in the headlights, and the car’s red taillights illuminating trees in a remote, dark wood. The film uses flashbacks in several key scenes in the film, revealing the pathological history of a troubled marriage, and a show down between Antoine and his passenger is revealed in the form of a nightmare.
A great deal of the film takes place at night, on the road—with the sense of impending doom gathering as night falls. Similarly, when daylight returns the violence is over, and all that remains is to pick up the pieces and continue….