Carole Bouquet as Helene and Jean-Pierre Darroussin as Antoine play a middle-age couple in the French film "Feux Rouges (Red Lights)."

Like its main character, "Feux Rouges (Red Lights)" takes several detours — so many that you may start to wonder if the film has lost its way.

But just when this clever, well-acted French thriller appears to hit a dead end, it suddenly takes another turn and winds up in a place that's completely unexpected. And that it gets there safe and sound, seemingly no worse for the wear, makes it something of a cinematic marvel.

Best of all, the film comments on the state of modern marriage — and our often out-of-whack personal priorities — without bashing the audience over the head. It's a very sly piece of filmmaking, and the title can be interpreted in several ways.

For one thing, it appears to refer to the reckless driving habits of Antoine Dunan (Jean-Pierre Darrousin). He's recently taken to drinking before, during and after getting behind the wheel, and his wife, Helene (Carole Bouquet), isn't too thrilled about that.

Nevertheless, she agrees to let him do the driving when they pick up their children from a holiday camp. However, the heavy traffic and her nearly constant sniping about his driving habits start to take a toll on Antoine, who ducks into a pub for a quick beer.

By the time he returns, she's already gone, apparently having taken the bus rather than ride in the car with her inebriated husband. So the irate Antoine decides to pick up a hitchhiker (Vincent Deniard) to keep him company.

Not to give anything away, but the hitchhiker is obviously hiding secrets of his own. And where co-screenwriter/director Cedric Kahn goes with that subplot may not be where you're expecting. The film rarely goes the conventional route.

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But what really makes the material effective is the cast. Veteran French performers Darrousin and Bouquet are very believable as the squabbling middle-age couple (so much so that you'd swear they were married in real life). And newcomer Deniard strikes the right balance between being menacing and magnetic.

"Feux Rouges (Red Lights)" is not rated but would probably receive an R for scattered use of strong sexual profanity, a fairly shocking scene of violence (a beating), use of some crude sexual slang terms, and brief gore. Running time: 105 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com