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Feux rouges (Red Lights)

(2004) *** Unrated
106 min. Wellspring Releasing. Director: Cedric Kahn. Cast: Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Carole Bouquet, Vincent Deniard, Charline Paul, Jean-Pierre Gros.

The French thriller Red Lights, based on a Georges Simenon novel, begins by establishing a sunny situation: a husband cheerfully emailing his wife in anticipation of their road trip to collect their children from camp. Quickly, the delusion of the man's optimism comes to the fore. The wife's offhanded dismissals of her increasingly hangdog husband give him license to drink with alcoholic relish. Soon, their lives have spiraled into a life-threatening whirlpool: the husband encounters an escaped fugitive, and the wife takes an unexpected leave of absence, not necessarily in that order.

Laurence Ferreira Barbosa and the director get a script assist from Gilles Marchand (With a Friend Like Harry...), and Kahn slowly tightens the resulting tale's screws. In one emblematic scene, a realization slowly dawns (at daybreak, no less) on the tainted hero (Jean-Pierre Darroussin): his wife is gone, and he can only—at the mercy of the universe—commandeer a bar phone and attempt to contain his hungover hysteria. Darroussin nails the character of Antoine, a man who confesses, "I got sick of playing the good little doggie" during an alcohol-fueled rampage through an unforgiving night.

Kahn suffuses the film with Claude Debussy themes which, inevitably, conjure the creeping, rolling musical lines of Hitchcock's favored composer Bernard Herrmann. The placid horror and pitch-black burrows of humor underscore a simple lesson of valuing life's fleeting (and sometimes disguised) blessings as long as they deign to stick around. Assumptions of societal protection have a way of backfiring. Red lights maintain order, but they also stop us in our impatient tracks. If Antoine is more vulnerable in repose, he is also more attentive and, therefore, more alive. Red Lights bristles with subcutaneous fear at signals which Hollywood thrillers routinely run.

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