The last two features I’ve screened at the LAFF are exemplary thrillers, both immersed in existentialist dread, both diverging in tone: CÈdric Kahn’s brooding and suggestive mood piece, Red Lights (Feux rouges, 2004), and Raoul Ruiz’s comedic and flamboyant neo-noir, A Taste of Murder (known at other festivals as A Place Among the Living from the French title, Une place parmi les vivants, 2004.) Both are filmmakers I know little about, although Ruiz’s film is the fourt of his works that I’ve seen, and the more I see, the more I want to see. (Fortunately, the filmmaker has made close to 100 films, so I have plenty of work cut out for me, as detailed in the excellent Australian film journal, Rouge.)
Red Lights begins with static aerial shots of Paris, the modern architecture and miniscule people, trails of automobiles, and geometric landscape resembling abstract art. The effect is emphasized through the use of Debussy’s “Nuages” movement from his Nocturnes and its ethereal, impressionist tones lend the images of organized civilization a graceful, disquieting edge.
Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is leaving the office; he’ll meet up with his lawyer wife (Carole Bouquet) and the two will drive out-of-town to pick up their two children, who have just completed their stay at a summer camp. On the way home, Antoine stops at a pub and slams down a few beers. Something is clearly troubling him, and the identification and articulation of that fear will be his project for the rest of the narrative, a nebulous, undefined weight of despair and self-loathing that threatens to undo his life.
Kahn is so adept at conveying Antoine’s mounting desperation through perfectly-timed accumulations of detail–focusing on the draining of each glass of booze, the clock on the wall and the time of day, Antoine’s rendezvous with his wife and their petty squabbling, the mobility restrictions of rush hour–that each incident suggests the imminent potential to unleash disaster. The film has been described as “Hitchcockian,” but Hitchcock’s classic model for suspense, that is, the audience knows a bomb will explode under a table while two oblivious characters chat away, is given a more mysterious and ultimately more unsettling twist: the audience knows something is under the table and that it’s about to go off, but what that threat actually is or why it’s there is not clear. This psychological thriller’s absence of easily quantifiable psychological data is its primary device for creating suspense; it’s also its primary device for engaging the viewer’s empathy and emotional immersion. When Antoine’s crisis finally begins to clarify and take shape, an opposition to society’s rules and daily routines–the “red lights” of life–the film has been constructed with such precision that the audience immediately identifies with Antoine’s feelings.
Ruiz’s film is arguably just as clever, aesthetically inventive, and thematically complex as his last film, Ce Jour-l‡. Set in Paris in 1958, Ernest Ripper (Thierry Gibaut) is a struggling writer in the thriving Parisian artistic community who lacks the creativity to succeed. While the Algerian FLN plant various terrorist bombs around the city, Ripper and his friends (who continually tease him for sharing the name of the famous serial killer) are almost completely oblivious to political realities–intermittent explosions erupt throughout the film and the characters don’t so much as blink.
Instead, Ripper meets up with who he assumes is the suave and debonair serial killer, Joseph Arcimbodo (Christian Vadim), and he decides to interview the killer and chronicle the details of his violence, selling it as fiction. Without knowing the exact nature of his inspiration, Ripper’s publisher is thrilled.
This strange and macabre setup gives way to a complex and playful tale of murder and obsession, writing and creativity, life and death, and all the tangled, metaphorical ways in which the subjects are interrelated. As characters quote Sartre and struggle to become men and women of action and responsibility in an indifferent world, they quickly find themselves enmeshed in layers of moral choices and unexpected ironies.
Ruiz virtually attacks the material with an acute structural and visual creativity, the noirish low-key lighting and canted frames, recurring visual motifs and stylistic flourishes throughout make it a film that never ceases to amuse and astonish. It’s a model of self-reflexive, postmodern storytelling in that the formal distancing techniques are used not simply for laughs or at the characters’ expense, but in order to contribute to a more immersive puzzle that works on several levels at the same time