Cédric Kahn's Red Lights is the kind of movie French cinema does well, times two: It's a domestic drama that revolves around a slowly simmering middle-aged marriage; and it's based on a book by the prolific Belgian-born detective author Georges Simenon, whose novels and stories, written in French, have been adapted into more than 100 movies.
These two disparate genres make a surprisingly happy couple, and everything in Kahn's lean, intelligent, unpretentious film cuts both ways.
You can just go along with the suspense of what will happen to Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a rather drab late-40s fellow who works for an insurance agency, and Hélí¨ne (Carole Bouquet), his corporate-attorney wife. Or you can read everything as a metaphor for their connubial tension: the traffic lights, the roadblocks, the convivial bars with young lovers smooching in a corner booth -- it's all life either going on around them or coming to a halt, the latter representing the way Antoine feels about himself in his emasculating marriage.
Their 24 hours of danger and self-discovery begin at the end of their last workday before they -- and everybody else in Paris -- leave on holiday. This means traffic jams and a sullen ride to pick up the kids at summer camp before spending time with Hélí¨ne's parents. So Antoine braces himself with three beers while waiting for Hélí¨ne to get out of a late meeting. And then, while she showers, he fills up the tank and braces himself some more, only this time with scotch.
And then, some more: at a mini-mart along the highway; at an isolated bar further up the road; and, when he comes out of that bar to find his wife gone, replaced by a note that she's taking the train, at the train station's nearby bar, and at a few others along the way as he chases her. Soon, emboldened by his burgeoning buzz, he gives a ride to a scowling cur who keeps his left hand in his pocket, and who turns out to be the escaped convict we've heard about on a series of barroom TVs and Antoine's car radio.
What happens after that is not for me to tell. Suffice it to say that the tension mounts, some blood gets spilled, and -- in the cruelest ways imaginable -- Antoine gets what he's wished for: a masculine adventure, and the castigation of what he perceived as having robbed him of his masculinity in the first place.
It's all gorgeously acted and tightly told by a patient director who coaxes suspense out of the most commonplace moments. Red Lights is also a visual and stylistic paean to Hitchcock, beginning with its story of an ordinary man placed in an extraordinary situation, but one that almost seems to unfold like a force of nature, another interesting thing to think about in Kahn's splendid movie. In French, with subtitles.