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Cédric Kahn's 'Red Lights' taps into the male motorist's deepest fears

By Richard von Busack

A MAGIC shot in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest: Running for his life, Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) seeks a clue inside the United Nations building. He is standing in the plaza; the building is so new and grand it still has all its aspirations of being the Capital of the World intact. With a suitably dramatic musical sting by composer Bernard Herrmann, Hitchcock gives us a God's-eye view of the action; Thornhill is just one atom-sized dot at the foot of the tower.

Cédric Kahn's major screw-tightener, Red Lights, is a different version of Hitchcock's great chase movie. Still, he pays a debt to North by Northwest in the opening sequence: a series of Parisian office-building plazas seen in the same vastly high shots with the same milling dots at their bases.

One of the black specks is getting ready for his vacation. The bald, short insurance man Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) will drive that night with his wife to pick up their children at summer camp. They meet at a cafe, but something is eating at Antoine while he chugs down a beer.

His wife, Hélène (Carole Bouquet), joins him, and we can see what a sticky summer it is by looking at her. This celebrated beauty of the '80s cinema is tricked out with unattractive glasses and damp, limp hair. She is an executive; her cell phone keeps buzzing like an angry hornet.

The two head off to join the annual August mobilization of French vacationers heading south to the country houses and beaches. As they drive, you can see injured Latin pride flaring up in Antoine: he wants to stop at every tavern and liquor store for more Scotch. And he takes it as a slight against his manhood that his wife won't let him drink his fill.

With the brutal traffic, the road repairs and numerous detours, the couple winds up deep in the countryside at night. She protests her husband's boozing, formally but without fury. Finally, she has enough. When he is having yet another cocktail at yet another roadside bar, she decides to leave to go catch a train. Somehow, during the miles of squabbling, neither has paid attention to a news bulletin on the radio: a dangerous criminal has just escaped from a nearby prison. The remorseful husband tries to find his wife at the train station, but she's vanished without a trace.

This film is probably rougher for men than it is for women. Men understand the difficulty of balancing aggressiveness and wimpiness. Seeing Antoine's obstinacy and drunk driving, some women might ask, "Why am I watching a movie about this buffoon?"

Here is why you should. Women supposedly go crazy wondering about what men are thinking. From this film, they can get an idea of the darkest moods and fears in men.

In a spate of drunken good-naturedness, Antoine picks up a hitchhiker on the way to Bordeaux. It's so obviously the mad convict that you suspect a red herring. Vincent Deniard, who plays the stranger, has a Zapata mustache and a head like a cinder block; he is enormous next to this yappy, diminutive hubby. But in his drunkenness, Antoine believes he has found a fellow rebel at last. "I got sick of playing the good little doggie," he says, and then he pants out his tongue to show the passenger what a good little doggie looks like. You sympathize with the hitchhiker's growing fury at this drunken, babbling insurance man, who thinks he knows all about the rough side of life.

Kahn's thriller is airtight. The film is frosted with mordant comedy, but it is relentless in the essential fearfulness of seeing this binger so far out of his depth. The final third is a hung-over scene of sick dread, played out in a series of telephone calls to the police and the hospitals.

Red Lights is based on a 1953 George Simenon novel, originally set on Long Island; there's but one serious burst of violence, with the worst of it offscreen. The film has the same subtext as North by Northwest and elsewhere in Hitchcock, regarding a man's fears of being emasculated by marriage. But it expands this male terror with a deeper fear—the fear of leaving your wife or girlfriend unprotected, because of foolish pride or a lapse of judgment.

Red Lights, in short, is authentic film noir—spare, frightening, critical of the ugliness of the world in roadside concrete and in a zombieburg small town where the yokels like to stare at strangers. This movie tells you how bad it feels to be a dog on a leash, but it also shows you how much worse it is to be prey to a wolf.

Red Lights (Unrated; 106 min.), directed by Cédric Kahn, written by Laurence Ferreira Barbosa, Kahn and Gilles Marchand, based on a novel by Georges Simenon and photographed by Patrick Blossier, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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