The killer beside me

French crime thriller chronicles desperate hours

Sep 8, 2004 at 12:00 am

Red Lights is a simmering suspense story adapted from a novel by prodigious French author Georges Simenon, who created Inspector Maigret and specialized in stories of queasy disorientation. Directed and co-written by Cedric Kahn, it’s a recognizable genre tale — a ruthless killer enters the life of a more or less ordinary bourgeois couple — but the focus is more on character than carnage. Although there’s no shortage of suspense and anxiety-inducing plot twists, the heart of this film is the story of one man’s psychic disintegration and partial recovery.

Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Helene (Carole Bouquet) are a bickering Parisian couple stuck together on a long drive to pick up their children at summer camp. Antoine feels jealous about his wife’s more successful career (he’s in insurance, she’s a media consultant) and neglected because it keeps her so busy. To make matters worse, he starts drinking before they leave Paris, trying to build up the courage to confront her with his unhappiness — which turns out to be a bad idea.

This is the kind of movie where you don’t want to give away too much plot, but suffice to say that when a radio broadcast announces the news of an escaped convict from a nearby prison, you know that during one of Antoine’s many alcohol pit-stops he’s going to run into the guy. It’s a small coincidence compared to one that comes much later in the movie, which momentarily throws the story out of whack. This comes as a jolting reminder that despite the film’s subtleties of character observation, we’re still in genre-land, where a few improbabilities are not only allowable but inevitable.

If you can get past that, the movie offers much nerve-wracking pleasure. Both Kahn and Simenon know how to slowly tighten the screws and Darroussin gives a brilliant performance as the hapless Antoine, a poor and generally sober soul who picks this unfortunate night to get fucked up. There’s a scene where Antoine reaches a crucial state of inebriation: Things are bad and getting worse — his wife has run off, he has an unsettling stranger in his car and he doesn’t really know where he’s going. Despite this, there’s a look of pure stupid bliss on his face as Debussy’s perfumed chords waft from the car radio into the surrounding ether. At this point you know there’s no turning back; he’s going to ride this wave of deceptive freedom right until it crashes into confusion and panic. And we’re going to go with him and we’re going to like it.

In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, Sept. 10-11, at 7 and 9:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, Sept. 12, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].