Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Red Lights involves a couple, yes. And it is, in some ways, about a marriage. But director Cédric Kahn’s latest is really concerned with how quickly one man’s imagined bliss can become a very real hell. In no time at all, it seems, a summer road trip that was anticipated in loving e-mails can descend into bickering, drunkenness, and perhaps even murder.

When we first meet insurance agent Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), he’s confirming a 5 o’clock meeting with his wife, workaholic attorney Hélène (Carole Bouquet), after which they will travel from Paris to Tours to pick up their two children from summer camp. Antoine writes, “I feel like I’m in love and about to go on a first date,” but when Hélène then leaves him waiting at a bar, oblivious to the time whenever he calls to check her whereabouts, his mood darkens. And he begins to drink.

The three beers Antoine’s had at the bar don’t seem to be enough when they go home and Hélène takes her time getting ready, suggesting that it’d be better if they left later, anyway. So he runs out for gas, in the form of a double scotch. Their passive-aggressive tug of war for control continues in the car, with Hélène admonishing Antoine for his increasingly reckless driving and questioning him when he chooses to take an alternate route. He grips the steering wheel that much tighter, pondering a marriage that isn’t, it turns out, like a first date at all. Then he stops for a restroom break, in the form of a double scotch.

At this point, Red Lights, based on Georges Simenon’s 1953 novel of the same name and co-written by Kahn and Laurence Ferreira-Barbosa, hasn’t fully loosed its menace—only hinted at it with barely listened-to radio broadcasts warning of travel accidents and an escaped convict. But the tension in the car is already thick enough to be squirm-inducing, thanks to spare yet loaded dialogue (“Why the face?”) and performances that are subtly combustive: Bouquet, though clearly a beauty, fixes an unattractive expression that’s all cold eyes and angry angles, while Darroussin, looking like That ’70s Show’s Kurtwood Smith, snaps at his wife and slumps toward the steering wheel like a man bored and beaten, the neon signs of nearby bars flashing off his weary face.

Nothing has really happened, of course, but the Hitchcockian setup—not to mention Antoine’s frequent muttering about wanting to “live like a man” and “be free”—assures that something soon will. As the couple’s spats over traffic turn more vicious, Hélène eventually calls Antoine on his alcohol consumption, threatening to take the car if he stops to get more. He does anyway, taking the keys with him, but when he returns, he finds only a note from Hélène saying that she’s taking the train. Antoine panics, racing to the closest station—and then the next—in an attempt to catch her. When he can’t, he simply resumes drinking and seems almost liberated, babbling to a scary-ass stranger in a bar and later offering the guy a ride.

The perilous events that ensue as Antoine tries to find his way back to his wife may or may not be happening: We see it all through his drunken haze, with Kahn and cinematographer Patrick Blossier often tingeing the watering holes Antoine visits and the roads he continues on with an ominous red. As dark nights of the soul go, this one is lurid in more than one sense: The increasingly sloppy Antoine is alternately self-absorbed, courting disaster in his marriage, in traffic, and with a hitchhiker, and self-aware, snapped back to reality after remembering that his wife has disappeared. Throughout, Darroussin keeps this wreck of a man both terrifying and fascinating to watch.

The script, meanwhile, offers plenty of high, suspenseful drama, though Kahn & Co. are best at wrenching anxiety from the mundane, such as a scene in which Antoine is shown in the harsh morning light of a coffee shop making a series of phone calls to police, train stations, and hospitals in an attempt to locate Hélène. Antoine’s plight is gripping not because it’s a convincing reality, but because it’s a vivid rendering of a nightmare: that it will take a tragedy, rather than your own awareness, to make you realize just how wrong you’ve been.

Red Lights’ protagonist may be a gruff alcoholic, but his company is far preferable to that of the nitwit 35-year-old at the center of Incantato, a flat romance by Italian writer-director Pupi Avati set in the Rome and Bologna of the ’20s. Old World sumptuousness has rarely felt so dull.

Incantato’s personality-challenged central character, Nello (Neri Marcoré) and his unbelievable circumstances are entirely to blame. Nello’s upper-class father (Giancarlo Giannini) has sent his son to teach in Bologna in the hope that he will finally meet a woman to marry. What we’re told is that the mild and gentlemanly Nello, who looks like a bit like Mr. Bean but is far from unattractive, is so off-putting that he’s never dated. Even with Marcoré rendering the character as a less-antic version of Roberto Benigni—he follows each of Nello’s nonjokes with a robotic “It was a quip!”—the idea that no woman would come near Nello is hard to buy.

Nello’s barber roommate, Renato (Alfiero Toppetti), tries to set him up with a manicurist at his shop, and even though she agrees to go out with him, she backs out at the last minute. Renato then throws standards out the window and introduces Nello to a rather woof-worthy blind woman, who immediately begins insulting him while they dance. Finally our hero meets Angela (former model Vanessa Incontrada), another blind woman, who’s beautiful on the outside but a petulant bitch on the inside: She’s using Nello merely to make her ex jealous. Naturally, he falls in love.

Throughout, Avati’s script simply tells us that Nello is pathetic without ever letting him prove it. When the manicurist turns Nello down, he responds, “If I were a girl, I’d never go out with someone like me.” His father, who misses Nello’s deceased brother, cruelly says that the heavens made a mistake in taking his favorite son rather than the one he’s now stuck with. And when the school principal criticizes him for not teaching the classics, Nello returns to his class and mopes that his lessons weren’t appreciated—“and I wasn’t appreciated, either.”

This attempted fairy tale has the usual elements: parents who don’t approve, circumstances that separate idea lovers, a blithe detachment from reality. Incantato’s emotion is bounced between its poorly rendered characters only because Avati commands it. (I mean really, it’s difficult to feel sad when Nello, the same day he meets Angela, begins weeping and says, “I’m in love with her, and I can’t do without her!”) Worse, when the feeling isn’t being forced, there’s simply nothing there—not even a terribly happy ending. Incantato means “enchanted,” but the film’s original title, Il Cuore Altrove, actually translates into something more appropriate: “The Heart Is Elsewhere.”CP