Red Lights

(Feux rouges, CÚdric Kahn, France, 2004)


While the novels and short stories of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich continue to be adapted by filmmakers and provide a key influence on pop culture in general, the work of Georges Simenon has less of a foothold in cinema.


Perhaps this is because Simenon’s tortuous, brilliantly constructed tales lend themselves less well to the typical, fashionable, film noir treatment than those other writers.


The mix of ingredients in Simenon is hard to bring off well on screen. His tales begin with a sense of everyday banality and then spin into sometimes outrageous narrative convolutions. Most particularly, Simenon’s plots are not simply pretexts for action and suspense, but rather offer elegant diagrams of ethical dilemmas. For Simenon, every story is about human desire – often dimly recognised or understood by those it grips – and its often devastating moral consequences.


In Red Lights, director and co-writer Cédric Kahn (Too Much Happiness, 1994) relocates to France a Simenon story that was, in fact, set in America. It begins with the niggling envies, frustrations and resentments of a marriage in crisis.


Surly insurance clerk Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and the ravishing, successful Hélène (Carole Bouquet) set out for the south of France to see their kids. The more that the tension escalates inside the car, the greater is Antoine’s need to sneak into bars for a shot or three of booze.


As with Million Dollar Baby (2004), prospective viewers of Red Lights should be forewarned of nothing more that follows in the plot. Suffice it to say that, step by step, this couple will be plunged into a nightmare that functions as a test of their marital bond as well as their moral values.


Kahn depicts the most extraordinary twists in this adventure with implacable calm. Even though Antoine, in particular, seems to be losing his mind, the film wisely does not try to mimic his subjective experiences, as virtually any comparable American thriller would.


Nonetheless, this story is told essentially from Antoine’s viewpoint. At the outset we see, through his eyes, the glimpses of Hélène’s behaviour that make him suspicious and passive-aggressive. When, at a key moment, they take their separate ways, Kahn will stick to the man’s journey – creating an even more radical enigma at the heart of his film than Stanley Kubrick did in Eyes Wide Shut (1999).


Red Lights is a slow-burning movie. At the start, I found myself regretting Kahn’s deliberately flat, plain style – as if he were trusting too much in his fine actors, and not enough in the tools of his own medium. (The back projection-style process work in the driving scenes comes off particularly clumsily.) But, eventually, this approach makes perfect sense. Kahn transforms simple, everyday actions – like Antoine making a series of phone calls in a public bar to locate his wife – into sweat-inducing gauntlets of tension and panic.


As any veteran browser of video or DVD shelves knows, it is de rigueur for any contemporary thriller to be labelled Hitchcockian. Kahn is smart enough to eschew any traces of homage to Hitchcock: there is nothing like a shower scene, a cool blonde or the Master of Suspense’s showy editing techniques. Placing his faith in the very different sensibility of Simenon, Kahn has made an original, compelling and subtly hallucinatory drama.

© Adrian Martin February 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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