If you looked up the phrase "seedy little man" in the dictionary, you'd probably find a photograph of the French actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin. Boy, does he do "seedy little man" superbly.
Although I'm certain that in his private life, M. Darroussin is witty, elegant and a general peach of a guy, his screen persona is spectacularly unpleasant. As Antoine, the antihero of "Red Lights," he's bald, angry, bitter, failed, grim, self-pitying; he's what all us guys fear we will or we have already become. And in this tight little French thriller, he is at his most wondrously despicable.
Really, who can blame him? Whatever Antoine's job, he appears not to have prospered. He has no sense of style, no charisma, no classical grace to his face. You've never seen a Frenchman so unprepossessing. You wouldn't notice him unless he sneered at you, but he'd most likely be sneering at his wife -- behind her back. Assuming he hadn't passed out.
Helene (Carole Bouquet, once a Bond girl) is not only beautiful, she's successful and accomplished (an attorney). The only reason she hasn't dumped this schlub is that if she had, there wouldn't be a movie. So as Cedric Kahn's film opens they're heading out of Paris to the countryside to pick up their two children at a camp. But Helene, of course, has been paying no attention to Antoine while climbing the career ladder, and it hurts and angers him, and so he secretly drinks, picks petty fights, acts obnoxiously and punishes his wife for being everything he's not.
You have to give it to Darroussin and Kahn: Neither is afraid of alienating an audience. Antoine is every male pathology in full blossom. He makes Hemingway look like Alan Alda. And, of course, when he returns from a secret visit to a bar where he'd gone for a drink, she's gone. He presumes she has left him in a snit because of the drinking, and possibly that was his secret plan all along, though of course he's not self-aware enough to have realized that. So now he's liberated and gives full vent to his rage. He drinks more, acts with a lot of phony bravado, tries to buddy up to a guy in a bar -- he's not gay; he just has this image in his mind of a bad boy's night out, drinking, carousing, raising hell with a pal, certainly with a trip to a brothel glimpsed far down the road, whatever. That fails but then the guy shows up at his car and demands a ride with the implication of force behind the request; suddenly Antoine remembers, through the alcoholic haze, something on the radio about an escaped murderer.
They go on, Antoine continuing to act reprehensibly but now scared and pitiful. This guy is about as heroic as the rats that live under the gallows. He's a lesson in what not to become. And yet somehow -- it's ugly, believe me -- he handles it.
He wakes up hung over the next morning in his car with only dim memories. Now he wants his life back. But his wife is missing.
As thrillers go, this one is domestic, mundane and hypnotic. You've known Antoines all your life and there are probably three or four Antoines in your office or shop. Of course, heh-heh, you're no Antoine, and neither am I, that goes without saying. But the larger point of the movie is that Antoine's utter normality, his complete lack of "movieness" or charisma, confers upon the film an overwhelming sense of authenticity. So when the Big Twist, outlandish as it is, happens, you don't say, "Oh, come on!" You believe it, because you believe so strongly in Antoine.
Kahn, who wrote as well as directed, is working from a book by Georges Simenon. It conforms to that twisted French genius's typical opus: grisly, ironic but minuscule and sordid. The world is never counting down to Armageddon in Simenon and the scream is only the water boiling. But somehow, it feels just as momentous.
Red Lights (107 minutes, at Landmark E Street) is not rated but contains scenes of violence and psychological intensity.