Red Lights (Feux Rouges)

By Patricia Lennox-Boyd

(warning: this review reveals the plot ending)

"The devil's on holiday with you..." so prophesies an eccentric stranger at an empty road-side bar as he stoops claustrophobically over Antoine, the short, balding protagonist of this film. Antoine (who has already drunk several whiskeys along the way) and his wife, Hélène, are on their way out of Paris for their summer holiday. The roads are jammed with motorists, the radio issues safety warnings for drivers, and they drive past a road accident. French director Cedric Kahn gradually edges us further forward in our seats with an unashamedly obvious apparatus of suspense-tricks, even going so far as having one of Antoine's work colleagues give some supposedly throwaway advice that he should drive safely. Something is definitely up – but it's not quite what we're led to expect.

The devil is in the car with Antoine, and he takes many forms. There is the devil inside Antoine himself – the one eaten up with insecurity, that cannot pass the flashing red Kronenburg sign of roadside bars without stopping for a fortifying drink, who jealously picks at his wife until the bickering between them develops into painful insult-slinging – and there's the escaped convict, the demonically violent hitchhiker who will join him in the car and who, it turns out, has just raped and injured his wife at the train station.

Cedric Kahn is drawn towards stories of extreme psychological states, and situations that have an element of the unreal about them. In his 1998 film, L'Ennui, the protagonist meets the girl he becomes painfully obsessed with through a series of extraordinary coincidences which include paying a stranger's bill in a low-lit strip joint in Pigalle. He becomes so wrapped up in his sexual fantasies with this girl that he ceases to lead a normal life, and his friends stop believing in her existence. By contrast, however, Kahn handles the story of Roberto Succo (2001), the Italian serial killer, with remarkable restraint: by recording the killings without sensationalism (quiet camera stills depicting the corpses) and not attempting to understand the psychology of its protagonist, the film almost has the feel of a documentary.

What Red Lights does is to marry both kinds of filmmaking. It insists on the everyday details that make up the life of Antoine and Hélène (eating dinner, tyre checks, petrol, cigarettes), details which are both necessary to the plot, and integral to the film's portrayal of the relationship between husband and wife. But while doing this, it is constantly pushing its story and imagery beyond the limits of plausibility. By the end of the film we're left not knowing how much of what we saw really occurred and how much was the figment of antoine's imagination.

And thus, as our protagonist hurtles blind drunk into the darkness, into the trail of red tail-lights on the road, the hitchhiker begins to represent his inner demon who he must confront and then kill, or die trying. An excessive dimension takes over, resulting in one of the most dramatic versions of the killed enemy coming back to life that i have ever seen – and just as the night-time story gets too thick with terror and anguish, the film cuts to a clear morning sky.

The stroke of genius, though, is a scene in a café when the dishevelled antoine tries to track down his wife by telephone: it unfolds at such a slow pace, with each of his numerous phone calls painstakingly recorded on screen, so that it modulates to a pitch of near-unbearable intensity. In Red Lights, Kahn demonstrates how excessive – even surreal – minimalist film making can be, and that even the oldest suspense-tricks can be used with great sophistication.
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