'Lights': Marriage on the Rocks

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2004; Page WE48

Despite being billed as a thriller, "Red Lights" is less a mystery than a drama about a milquetoast who becomes a man, if only in his own mind. Like a grub larva turning into a beetle, the transformation ain't pretty. Yes, the movie involves the disappearance of the man's wife and his drunken attempts to solve it, but the question of who done it -- or, qui l'a fait, as our quintessentially French anti-hero might say, if he gave a damn -- never seems the point.

Centering around a singularly unpleasant protagonist, "Red Lights" is the story of Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, a kind of French Wallace Shawn), a resentful, possibly alcoholic nebbish who manages to lose his wife while en route to pick up their kids from summer camp after stopping at a roadside bar one too many times in an effort to lubricate the constant friction between himself and his much more attractive and successful spouse, Helene (Carole Bouquet). Thinking that she has decided to take the train (a wise choice, given the level of alcohol impairment he has been exhibiting on the drive down so far), Antoine rushes pell-mell to the station, where his failure to catch up with her leads him -- surprise! -- to another bar. (Honey, you won't believe how thirsty I got just looking for you.)

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There, Antoine picks up a menacing hitchhiker (Vincent Deniard), who, in a feat of cosmic coincidence seen only in movies, serves as a plot link, not to mention unwitting marriage therapist, between Antoine and Helene. Without ruining the film's disturbing climax, let me just say that what transpires between Antoine and his passenger changes everyone's lives, and not all for the good. Perhaps most perversely, it restores Antoine's damaged male ego, but only by allowing him to become a kind of monster.

With the film's affectless, nonjudgmental tone, it's hard to know if filmmaker Cedric Kahn (adapting Georges Simenon's novel with co-screenwriters Laurence Ferreira Barbosa and Gilles Marchand) thinks this is a bad thing, a good thing or just a thing. The film, like the cheap double-scotches quaffed down by the central character, leaves a distinctly sour aftertaste that's hard to wash away the morning after.

RED LIGHTS (Unrated, 106 minutes) --Contains obscenity, physical violence and drug use. In French with English subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and Landmark's Bethesda Row.

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