Inside the Mechanics of Suspense, Cedric Kahn on “Red Lights”
by Liza Bear
End of summer: a road, a car, a man, a woman, a hitchhiker. No, not Polanski‘s “Knife in the Water,” but Cedric Kahn‘s “Red Lights,” a well-constructed psychological thriller and descent into hell, based on a Georges Simenon 1953 novel set on Labor Day. Kahn has changed the location from the US to France and brought it up to date; the bickering couple are driving from Paris to Bordeaux to pick up their kids from summer camp. With Helene, the flawless Carole Bouquet (“That Obscure Object of Desire”) as a haughty corporate type and veteran character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin as Antoine, a disgruntled insurance salesman, there’s clearly an imbalance in the relationship. To assuage his malaise Antoine sneaks off to the bar even before they hit the road. Bumper to bumper traffic and mutual hostility between driver and passenger create an unbearable atmosphere.
Character and plot are superbly interwoven as mounting claustrophobia inside the vehicle and growing menace outside buttress each other. Antoine gets more and more inebriated as his frustrations grow. Eventually taking a detour to dodge the traffic, they lose their way. That’s the final straw for Helene who decides to take the train, with Antoine in hot pursuit. The film adroitly exploits the kharmic terror that is felt when personal squabbles seem to unleash unexpected disaster.
Liza Bear spoke to Cedric Kahn when “Red Lights” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and the following is an excerpt from their dialogue.
indieWIRE: You’ve made two thrillers: “Roberto Stucco” and “Red Lights.” Are you also a big fan of crime fiction?
Cedric Kahn: Not particularly. I just like variety — to try out different genres. I’ve read detective novels in the past, but right now I’m working on films back to back. When you work a lot, you become less curious. That’s a problem. You put out a lot, but you’re no longer on the receiving end.
iW: You’re tied to the rhythms of production.
CK: Yep. I also need periods in my life where I’m not doing much, just mulling things over. When I’m bored, even.
iW: Do you live in Paris?
CK: Yes, in Belleville. It’s a working class neighborhood.
iW: What attracted you to this particular Georges Simenon novel?
CK: I’d been wanting to make a suspense thriller for some time. “Roberto Stucco” wasn’t a true thriller because it was based on a real-life event. There was more of a documentary element to it… And actually, in “Red Lights” I was able to do what I hadn’t been able to do with “Roberto Stucco.”
iW: Which was?
CK: To get into the mechanics of suspense.
iW: Was that hard in this case, escalating the tension?
CK: Well, I like it when it’s difficult. I like taking on things I haven’t done before. That’s what turns me on.
iW: But what was the trickiest part of writing the script?
CK: Let me think… [pause]. I know. It was finding the way in which the two protagonists would each separately run into the third person. Definitely that was the spot we had to work at a lot.
iW: So by bringing in the train…
CK: Voila! In the novel it’s different. It’s easier to explain complicated situations in books. So we brought in the train and two stations. Helene [Carole Bouquet] boards the train at one station, and Antoine gets off at another station where he thinks he’ll find her. But he finds the hitchhiker there instead. We set up parallel journeys between the train and the car. [In the Simenon] Antoine’s very drunk and he gets lost while he’s looking for his wife who’s disappeared from the parking lot so he returns to the same bar. That’s where he meets the hitchhiker. That was very clear in the book. But in the script it was hard to understand that he was coming back to the same place, because film is more linear. It’s very complicated to show a loop. Unless you use artificial narrative devices like flashbacks, which I try to avoid.
iW: Isn’t the Hitchcock moment finding the diamond necklace in the car? Which throws the viewer back to a scene between the couple in the opening sequence. It tells you something about them, and it’s a plot point.
CK: That’s very typical of Simenon. It’s partly a thriller and partly a character movie, about human relationships. It was very important for me to create strong characters as well. Just to make a thriller would seem gratuitous. The things that happen to them in the story enable them finally to say they love each other-very simple words, yet hard to say.
iW: Antoine drinks like a fish.
CK: Yes, that’s in the Simenon. But alcohol doesn’t interest me as a product. Nor do drugs.
iW: [laughs] Let’s say addiction, then.
CK: Not even. Some drunks are really boring. What’s interesting is people’s personal stories. Often drinking gives people courage, and then I’m interested in what they do with that courage. Alcoholics are often very sensitive and emotional types who need alcohol to feel strong. That’s really Antoine’s situation in the film. And then it turns into a catastrophe. But that’s very moving. Behind all these addictions I feel there’s a great need for love. And recognition from the other. I think lack of self confidence or self-esteem-that’s a terrible problem. Most people suffer from it at some time. And it could take your whole life to repair the damage. And sometimes an entire life isn’t enough… You’re pulling a face.
iW: Only because in the U.S. the phrase “low self-esteem” is bandied about so much… What’s the French for psychobabble?
CK: We say “philosophie de la cuisine.”
iW: It’s probably a truism that people see shrinks here more than in France. No?
CK: Well, French people from a certain social milieu go to therapy. People who can afford it. Not necessarily those who really need it.
iW: Last night I ran into Jean-Pierre Darroussin.
CK: Where? In the street?
iW: No. At a jampacked party at the Marriott Financial Center.
CK: Excellent actor. I wasn’t thinking of him when I wrote the script because in the novel the story takes place in the United States. I didn’t have French faces in mind. Then later [when we decided to shoot in France] Darroussin seemed the obvious choice. That’s really satisfying-when the actor makes you totally forget the character. Because a film happens in stages…
iW: Do you find casting nervewracking?
CK: Yes, but it can give you a big boost of energy… it’s also irreversible. Like all the other critical stages of filmmaking. I’m talking about a normal French low-budget production. Anyway, Darroussin seemed perfect for the role–he has that emotional intensity and fragility, but also a sense of mockery. Because with alcohol the character gets more distanced, he’s at an ironic remove from the situation. I see Darroussin as both very physical and very dreamy. He has a complex personality.
iW: In the book does he have to kill the hitchhiker to prove himself to his wife?
CK: There’s no actual murder in the Simenon. It all happens in Antoine’s imagination. It’s a wonderful novel and Simenon’s a great writer but I felt the film needed that scene. It translated into cinematic language what Simenon dealt with as fantasy, as happening in Antoine’s imagination. This story isn’t quite realist. It’s a bit…
CK: Voila. I wanted to give it a surrealist dimension, a bit excessive. And for me this murder is also psychological, interior, as though Antoine was killing off the darkest part of himself.