Escape Route

It is at its most thrilling when it least resembles a thriller.

Well, hell. You might suppose that a few decades of reviewing movies, especially the two-plus since Ronald Reagan moved into the White House, would have inured a person to mass displays of bad taste and low intelligence; that a parade of stuff like Dodgeball and I, Robot would to some degree cushion the blow of George W. Bush's re-election. I trust you'd be right. While awaiting my recovery, I have an additional suggestion, if you've already got around to Vera Drake and Sideways, of a nice little corner to slink off to: Red Lights at the Ken Cinema for a week starting Friday, splitting time with the totally unrelated Proteus. The first-named (fittingly enough, from Bush-whacking France) needs special pointing out because you will not find it on the Ken calendar that came out at the end of August. It takes the place of Imagining Argentina, which I can only imagine has been removed because Landmark got miffed at its distributor for its unforeseen appearance this past September in the Cinema en Tu Idioma series at Hazard Center. (November's entry in that series, also starting Friday, is the made-in-Spain Kill Me Tender.) Landmark does not accept hand-me-downs. Too bad for me. Now I don't get a second chance to see it.

The replacement film, in any event, is a suave and sophisticated Gallic thriller of the type we can count on seeing at a rate of about one per year, filling the spot occupied in recent years by Time Out or With a Friend Like Harry or almost any of Claude Chabrol's offerings, Merci pour le Chocolat, The Swindle, La Cérémonie. (We can always count, also, on some sloppy-speaking critic to slap the label of "Hitchcockian" on it.) Adapted from a novel by Georges Simenon, Red Lights recounts a nocturnal automobile outing -- a Parisian couple en route to join their children at summer camp in the Basque region -- that results in a breakdown of more than just the automobile (though that, too): if not quite a breakdown of civilization, as in Godard's Weekend, at least a breakdown of civility. The husband, strangely abstracted at first glance, begins to tank up for the trip on the sly -- whisky's his pleasure -- and continues on the road to refuel his tank under the scornful eye of his wife. (His insistence that it improves his driving, nip by nip, can hardly help but remind us of Princess Diana's French chauffeur on her last ride.) It becomes a bone of contention between them. And after the wife makes good on her promise to be gone when he returns to the car from his latest pit stop, the film turns into something of a chase and a hunt. It does not really begin to resemble a thriller, however, until the entrance of a hulking hitchhiker, hiding his left hand mysteriously in his pocket, whom we recognize well ahead of the muzzy protagonist to be the escaped convict we've been hearing about on the car radio.

By any stretch of the imagination, the escaped convict is a facile device (no matter how carefully set up through news bulletins), and even if the imagination will compliantly stretch that far, it is apt to snap at the whopper of a coincidence that awaits at the dénouement. However that may be, the personal dynamics between the chug-a-lugging driver and the taciturn hitcher are never as compelling as those between the married couple. Their escalating spat, precisely calibrated, sounds authentic at every step upward ("Why the face?" "What face?" -- after the husband impatiently exits the jammed freeway in the middle of nowhere), and generates tremendous tension without in the least stretching the imagination. The tension, once reduced by the wife's disappearance, is most powerfully recaptured when the abandoned husband, the next morning, spends an extended period of time doing detective work on a public phone: the tension, there, has as much to do with cinema -- how long can this repetitive sequence be sustained? -- as it has with sleuthing. (The voice emanating from the summer camp, by the way, belongs to the 1950s sex kitten, Mylène Demongeot, daughter-in-law of the novelist Simenon.) It may seem an odd sort of compliment to pay a thriller, that it is at its most thrilling when it least resembles a thriller. But that's a compliment to the individual film -- to its individuality -- not to the genre.

Manhood is clearly the central issue, as might be apparent as early as the opening shots: the anthill perspective of a high overhead camera, downsizing the pedestrians. It comes clearer, to be sure, through the wife's superior job and higher sex appeal, and the husband's continual intake of liquid courage and its unleashing of the animal within. "I got tired of playing the good little doggie," he justifies himself. But the hitcher doesn't let him off the leash: "You're like my dog" -- always thirsty.

Character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin is completely commanding in the lead role, filling in his Sunday-funnies face -- a depressed and dyspeptic Dagwood -- with a softening, melting, oozing humanity. And Carole Bouquet makes the ideal foil, with a sharpness that cuts, an iciness that chills, an aloofness that dwarfs. The filmmaker, Cédric Kahn, while he has made a name for himself at home, with a small handful of credits, is as yet unknown over here, and is a name worth remembering. But a name that already ought to be familiar -- from Jet Lag, from Amen and several other Costa-Gavras films, from a couple of Agnes Vardas -- is that of the cinematographer, Patrick Blossier, your guarantee of a top-grade image, spacious, luxuriant, lustrous, crystalline. There has been no handsomer object on the screen this year, and no better, more atmospheric, more authoritative shots of Paris streets, outlying freeways, country roads, roadside bars, in any year ever. (The musical selection of Debussy's Nuages, although no doubt atmospheric, is no boon to the particular atmosphere of the film.) I could not suppress the thought that the director-photographer-editor-star of The Brown Bunny, Vincent Gallo, could especially take a lesson or two here on the filming of a road movie, or at least take a well-deserved beating. Even when the film loses some of its credibility, it retains its full beauty.

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