Red Lights

October, 2004, Mystery

Directed by:Cédric Kahn

Starring:Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Carole Bouquet, and Vincent Deniard

Being disappointed with a movie you highly anticipated is only made worse when its reviews have been generally laudable. This French version of one of George Simenon's many short, oddly detached crime novels is all wind-up and no pitch; despite some clever business at its beginning, the film grows overlong very quickly, its sappy ending effectively gutting the novelist's original intent.

The proceedings start crisply enough; a long married couple, Antoine and Helene, prepare to leave Paris on a late summer Friday afternoon to pick up their kids at summer camp. Helene, (played by the ravishing Carole Bouquet) is a highly successful attorney, while Antoine, (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) toils inconspicuously for an insurance company and struggles with the disparity between his wife's success and his lack of it. His frustration demonstrates itself in his impatience with her tardy departure from work and what he regards as flirtatious behavior with a colleague, which causes him initiate a drinking binge that will continue through the long evening ahead as the couple verbally spar with one another through innumerable traffic jams in the drive towards their rendezvous with the pair's two pre-teenage children.

Antoine's marinates his seething resentment with frequent stops for more drinking, which only sharpens his foul mood and Helene's growing concern about their safety. At one such stop, she threatens to leave if he takes another drink; when he returns to the parking lot of the roadhouse at which he's stopped, she's gone.

Thus beings Antoine's manhunt for his mysteriously absent wife; he races to the nearest station only to learn that the last train has already departed. He then races it to the next stop, only to miss it again. More drinking follows, along with the acquisition of an ominous hitchhiker who makes the frantic Antoine's night even more hellish. In the morning, he awakens in his badly damaged car by the side of a country road, with a monumental hangover, no wife, no passenger and no accurate memory of what's transpired…

Simenon excelled at constructing tightly-woven tales of the kind depravity which can lurk just below the surface of seemingly banal human lives; his coldly lucid prose making matter-of-fact descriptions of violence all the more terrifying. And Darroussin's whiney, 12-o'clock-shadowed drunk delivers a perfect blend of bottled-up passive/aggressive behavior fueled with booze and self-pity. If veteran French director Cedric Kahn had stayed with this stark but credible tone throughout this nightmarish road trip, he'd have made a film worthy of its source; but despite wonderful performances by his leads, Kahn slides into an overlong exposition of Antoine's descent into living hell, ultimately boring his audience and tempting screams of "just get on with it" at the screen. 

The director's pat ending doesn't help; it's incongruously sunny, given the events which led up to the movie's climax. This one features a strong beginning, an agonizing descent into irrelevance and a payoff at odds with what's come before.

The verdict? Save your time and money. 

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