- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

A French adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel, “Red Lights,” exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, modulates less than brilliantly from the apprehensive to the morbid to the anticlimactic.

Using passages from Claude Debussy as a fitfully disarming musical accompaniment, director Cedric Kahn depicts the lost weekend of a seething family man and compulsively drunken driver from Boulogne named Antoine Dunan, portrayed by an unfamiliar character actor, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, who bears a slight resemblance to Billy Bob Thornton.

Antoine is married to a patrician beauty, Helene, portrayed by late-1970s Luis Bunuel discovery Carole Bouquet. Madame Dunan seems to enjoy a loftier professional status (corporate lawyer) than her spouse, a mere insurance company functionary. Not that either working identity is established with foolproof authority as the couple is introduced at the end of a workweek, preparing to drive to the south of France in order to pick up two children at summer camp and begin a family holiday.

When Helene is late for a preliminary rendezvous, Antoine begins drinking and increases the intake as night falls and mutual resentments mount. He layers several beers with double shots of whiskey, drives erratically and bickers with Helene between emergency stops to slake his grotesque thirst. She abandons him near Tours and leaves a note in the car revealing that she intends to take a train to their destination.

This is a fateful turning point, and not only for reasons embedded in the plot. The movie seems seriously diminished once Miss Bouquet is removed from the continuity for the better part of an hour. The expectation of continued impressions of a marriage in jeopardy is short-circuited. We’re obliged to be content with a thoroughly soused Antoine, muttering to himself and then foolishly acquiring another passenger, a stranger calculated to emerge as a homicidal menace.

The shift never transcends the initial cause for concern, marital wrangling inside a recklessly driven vehicle in the dead of night. Left to whatever devices the filmmaker can command to exploit the solitary husband’s self-pity, alarm and terror, the movie veers off the road and into a melodramatic ditch, a bit sooner than Antoine himself.

Mr. Kahn appears adept at scene-setting tension and nocturnal shivers on the open road until Miss Bouquet vanishes. Watching Mr. Darroussin descend into further drunken stupors and dilemmas proves a nightmare with scant gratification. Comes the dawn, and we encounter him attempting to sober up and make amends. Better late than never, but the movie droops while winding down. The aftermath is too far removed from perils that remained perversely murky and distant during the night.

I was amused by one static but virtuoso sequence, in which Antoine makes a series of phone calls from a bar in a country town in order to trace Helene’s whereabouts. Evidently, hung-over Frenchmen can keep the numbers of several police precincts, hotels and hospitals in their heads without ever needing to consult a directory. You can get through anywhere in France, just like that, and get invariably crisp and informative responses. What a country.

The end credits mention “the voice of Mylene Demongeot,” whom I haven’t thought about in years. One of the cuter Brigitte Bardot rivals of the period, she emerged as an international starlet in Otto Preminger’s movie version of “Bonjour, Tristesse.” I don’t know which phone voice she dubbed in “Red Lights,” but it was agreeable to discover that she’s still active. This serendipitous sidelight was certainly an unexpected grace note to an expendable thriller.

**

TITLE: “Red Lights” (“Feux Rouges”)

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and graphic violence, allusions to sexual molestation).

CREDITS: Directed by Cedric Kahn. Screenplay by Mr. Kahn, based on a novel by Georges Simenon. Cinematography by Patrick Blossier. Production design by Francois Abelanet. Costume Design by Elisabeth Tavernier and Edwige Moree d’Arleux. Music: Selections from Claude Debussy. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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