Red Light District


REVIEW by Willard Manus

RED LIGHTS, a French film written and directed by Cedric Khan was one of the hits of the recent Los Angeles Film Festival. It is an adaptation of a novel by Georges Simenon, who made his reputation writing thrillers about unpleasant people confronting the reason for their unpleasantness--usually a strong streak of evil or malice.

That's pretty much the case with RED LIGHTS, which doesn't even pretend to try and concoct a sympathetic character. The three leads in this film noir will not have you rooting for them, but Khan tells his story in such a compelling way that you might find yourself caught up in its unfolding and interested in its resolution. It's a little like the feeling you get watching a beached fish struggling for air.

RED LIGHTS opens with introductory shots of its hero, played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin, leaving his office job on a Friday afternoon. Darroussin, who has been described as an everyman actor, works as a clerk in an insurance company and is typically mousy, nerdy and repressed. He has a slightly beaten, hangdog look about him.

We learn he is supposed to meet his wife, played by the icy beauty Carole Bouquet (current girlfriend of Gerard Depardieu), and drive with her from Paris to Bordeaux to pick up their children, who have been away at summer camp. Darroussin keeps calling her on his cellphone, only to be told that she is running late but will "meet him soon."

Cellphones, by the way, figure so strongly in RED LIGHTS that it's doubtful the film could work without them. They are used not just to convey information and reveal character, but to advance the plot. French Telecom owes the producers a big debt of gratitude.

RED LIGHTS' script is terse and sparse, leaving much for the audience to infer on its own, with the help of a few subtle hints.

Is the audience to believe, for example, that the real reason Bouquet is late is that she has been spending time with her lover? There is no explicit revelation, just a long-distance shot of her saying goodby to a well-dressed man just before she crosses the street to join her husband at a cafe. He notices her with the man (through the cafe window) but makes only a cryptic remark about him, which she completely ignores.

While in the cafe Darroussin belts down one drink after another, first beer, then duble whiskeys. When Bouquet suggests that it might be a good idea if he quit drinking, in light of the long drive they must make that night, he turns on her, angrily and viciously. She responds in similar fashion, exhibiting palpable loathing for him.

The verbal sparring continues as they begin the drive to Bordeaux, fighting weekend traffic all the way, listening to radio reports of the accidents that have already taken place on the highways leading out of Paris. The ugliness of today's car culture saturates the film: cars and trucks roar by, spitting fumes, burning up rubber, disfiguring the landscape, shining their blinding headlights at one and all.

As Darroussin and Bouquet bicker, we learn some of the reasons for their apparent dislike of each other: she is a high-powered corporate lawyer, successful and polished; he is beneath her on the social and economic scale, a man she treats like "an obedient little dog."

He stops often to drink more doubles, wanting to show her what kind of man he truly is: macho, hard-drinking, rebellious. The more he drinks, of course, the worse he drives; swerving this way and that, passing on curves, missing off-ramps. She goes silent with rage and resentment; the only sound in the car is the radio, now telling of a convict who has broken out of a nearby prison and is the object of a police manhunt.

The convict, played by the hulking, sinister Vincent Deniard, soon figures in the plot, turning the man-wife conflict into a triangle--by any means a conventional one, though. Darroussin begins to identify with the convict, who somehow becomes a hero to him, the kind of outlaw he'd like to be, defying conventional society, thumbing his nose at authority and the rich.

Darroussin's drunken, romantic notions get put to the test when he meets Deniard in a bar--after, it must be said, his wife has quit him. The split-up took place at a gas station, where he continued to drink whiskey. On his return to the car, he discovers that she has walked out on him.

Thinking she has jumped on a train, Darroussin races after her in a manic quest to beat the train to the next station. The images of him trying to best the train are brilliantly shot, as are most of the other scenes in RED LIGHTS. Khan is a master at night photography and at capturing the sullen seediness of French rural bars and discos. Darroussin meets Derian in one of those dives and offers to give him a lift--even though he knows the man probably had something to to with his wife's disappearance.

RED LIGHTS is a study in perversity and self-deception. Srange and twisted as it is, the film still manages to find a little humanity and love in the human dungheap under inspection.