Feux Rouges (Red Lights) begins with an email. Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) writes to his wife Hélène (Carole Bouquet), saying he is as excited about the trip they are planning as he was on their first dates. What a lovely man he seems, missing her so much that he emails her love letters half an hour before they see each other.
The promising mood quickly sours due to the frustration of attempting to leave on time. Soon, they’re in traffic, on the way to pick up their kids at a summer camp in the South of France. The cold, statuesque Hélène is a distracted, successful corporate lawyer, threatening her husband, who works several rungs down the career ladder in insurance. The stalemate on the road mirroring their marriage, they begin to bicker, about nothing and everything. The tedium is made worse by radio reports of further delays ahead and escaped convicts. The camera gives you no let-up in terms of scenery, so that you begin to feel the dread of a child who doesn’t know how to stop his parents’ argument and longs just to stare out of the window.
Antoine downs two beers before even taking the driving seat, then continues drinking secretively, becoming more and more belligerent as the afternoon turns into night. Hélène had ignored his email, and whether his subsequent irritation comes from that or from a deeper history of resentment, it seems clear that his declaration of love is a test, only true if she reciprocates.
Billed as a thriller, Feux Rouges is also about a kind of heterosexual masculine crisis. If his dream of an outlaw’s life on the road, with loose women, mysterious strangers, and whisky available at every highway stop, is mundane, Antoine seems to choose the wrong day to live it out. Certainly, the camera’s persistent focus on this unintentionally transparent man suggests he feels as though he has drawn one of life’s short straws. In order to heighten the contrast between Antoine and the men he wishes to emulate, the only other significant characters in the film are a sinister population of men he meets in the roadside bars. Brooding and explosive, these figures punctuate the journey as reminders of a world of which Antoine is half afraid and half wishes to inhabit.
Antoine embodies a familiar paradox, feeling like a victim and striving for alpha male status. He snidely comments on how much Hélène is valued by her colleagues, caricaturing himself as a puppy dog chained to a domineering wife. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that Hélène’s every significant action is actually passive. In the car, Hélène is the passenger, waiting out his tantrums and rolling her eyes occasionally, treating him as the convenient companion in her fulfilled life. Faced with such passive disdain, Antoine needs to probe Hélène for a reaction. Repeatedly placing himself in positions of emotional and physical vulnerability, he blames his sense of inferiority on the outside world, as suggested when, later, he briefly exits the car and lies in the grass, he lies with his arms behind his back as though his hands have been bound. He is helpless even before events actually put him in danger.
Consuming enough whisky to put a rhinoceros into a coma, he manages somehow to keep from killing anyone with the car. He can handle his drink, he can handle a car, and he’s doing both at the same damn time. The film’s title, Red Lights, refers to the warning commands of traffic signals — which in Antoine’s case are quickly superseded by the commands of the large, glowing beer advertisements that mark out every truck stop bar.
Here Hélène loses her patience, and decides to take the train. Feeling quixotic, but coming off as mawkish, Antoine races off to follow her in order to catch her at one station, and then the next, where, of course, he loses her. Darroussin displays the irony of drunkenness, that Antoine’s emotions are keyed to their finest pitch at a moment when his motor skills are incapable of forming words of more than two syllables. As the night darkens, so does the company he keeps. Deciding to push on to the South, he picks up a morose hitchhiker. He sees his passenger’s brooding aimlessness as a form of dignity, a notion that is knocked out of his head with events that follow.
With the dawn comes recognition of his responsibility as a father, and a coincidence that allows the film to build a subtle mystery. What happens to Antoine is never quite clear. By morning, he is restored to the status of middle-class, law-abiding citizen, leaving disturbing questions as to how he has morphed so quickly into the model father and alpha male he so badly wants to be.