When Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) wakes up in his car on the side of a country road somewhere in southwest France in Cédric Khan’s thriller Red Lights, he knows he’s up merde creek. One tire is julienne rubber after being driven flat for too long. He’s all alone and can’t get in touch with anybody, since he tossed his cell phone somewhere near Tours when his wife, Hélène (Carole Bouquet, still a frigidly obscure object of desire), decided to take the train to pick up their children in Bordeaux for summer holiday after a slowly boiling fight. He looks a mess: shirttails hanging out, his greasy receding hair askew, and a smattering of bruises and dirt dotting his clothes, hands, and face, telltale signs of a night spent unwisely drinking in roadside bars from Paris all the way to this farmland, wherever it is. And that hangover reverberating inside his skull really makes it hard to remember if he bludgeoned to death the hitchhiker he picked up the evening before.
Transposed to France from the United States of Georges Simenon’s source novel, Red Lights seethes with an omnipresent but understated menace, where nothing is more harrowing than the quotidian. Darroussin, looking like a cross between Michel Piccoli and Wallace Shawn, plays Antoine like a weary dog that raises a leg to the sofa as his defiant last gasp. An insurance agent who silently cowers emasculated when near his successful lawyer wife, Antoine’s drinking is immature folly conducted without Hélène’s knowledge until he’s imbibed enough courage to shove it in her face. As they leave the main highways for detours along back roads slowed by construction, Hélène grows ever more exasperated with this liquid machismo and leaves, only to encounter a different peril.
Khan stitches this unsettling tale together with a coroner’s quiet precision. The movie is, quite literally, drunkenly driven by Antoine, and the journey permits Khan to let the ordinary—traffic jams, stalled cars, the silent wash of passing scenery—cast long, unnerving foreshadows. Khan’s near genius strokes come from using Debussy’s Nuages as uncannily great road music—the movie’s calm anxiety highlights the unsettled motifs lurking under Debussy’s romantic swells—and in ultimately satisfying genre conventions with underhanded cynicism. Red Lights is, at its core, the reactionary mind’s revenge fantasy, but it’s achieved in saturnine plotting that sucks the convention of its vengeful pleasures as it reinstates the desired status quo. It’s a devilishly sobering twist, and Khan serves this dish in elegant permafrost.