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Long night's journey into hell

Red Lights (Not rated) (106 min.) _ The brilliant, sinister French thriller Red Lights is a twisty road movie in which every sign points toward catastrophe. As night falls during the journey of Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Helene (Carole Bouquet) Dunan, an unhappily married couple on their way from Paris to Bordeaux, the highway takes them into descending levels of psychosexual hell.

Antoine, a mousy, balding insurance salesman, hates his job and whines that he wants to "live like a man" and "be free." He complains to Helene, a sleek corporate lawyer whose success galls him.

A major reason the marriage has turned rancid is that Antoine feels himself less than an equal partner. And with a sly, malicious humor, the film dramatizes his alcohol-fueled rebellion, which precipitates a grisly solution.

The film was directed by Cedric Kahn, whose 1998 film L'Ennui immersed itself in a different kind of sexual paranoia.

Darroussin's depiction of Antoine is uncompromising and often infuriating. He vents his hostility toward Helene by secretly drinking at rest stops and stoking his resentment while Helene waits in the car. You want to taunt him as a gutless, drunken milquetoast. Yet there are signs that the marriage is not lost.

The couple gets stuck in crawling traffic, and Antoine quickly succumbs to road rage. Against Helene's wishes, he impulsively turns onto a darker route, and soon they are lost. Reports on the radio warn of an escaped convict. The tension between the Dunans reaches the breaking point when Helene warns her husband she's going to take the train. Stopping at another bar, he angrily takes the car keys with him.

When he returns, Helene is gone. Driving like a maniac, he desperately tries to catch up with her train but misses it at each station.

In another, more ominous, bar, he meets a mysterious, silent hitchhiker (Vincent Deniard), whom he suspects may be the escaped convict, and offers him a lift. The danger brings out a reckless bravado in Antoine. Eventually they wind up in a forest where Antoine endures a life-changing ordeal.

The film captures the claustrophobic terror of an unstable driver and hostile passenger trapped in a speeding vehicle. It also conjures a primal dread of violence lurking in the night. But its most suspenseful scene takes place the next morning in a diner. Shaken and hung over, Antoine desperately calls every railroad station and hospital in the area for news of his wife.

Red Lights owes much to Alfred Hitchcock's gallows humor. But it is its own movie. The reverberations of its deceptively easygoing ending should set off debates among analysts of sexual power games in film for years to come.

_ STEPHEN HOLDEN, New York Times

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