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The Crimson Rivers (2000)
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Interestingly for a film about eugenics, the production of this film has more than a whiff of genetic engineering about it. Imagine a collection of beret-wearing scientists, carefully selecting talent in order to construct a film guaranteed to be a commercial success outside of France. Grab cult director Kassovitz who made La Haine, throw in two of the most recognisable French stars in the shape of Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel, and give them a script written by the French equivalent of Michael Crichton. Short of having Depardieu in there somewhere and maybe Jean-Pierre Jeunet directing you couldn't get a more Yank-friendly creative team. Indeed, along with Brotherhood Of The Wolf and, to a lesser extent, Amélie, this is a style of filmmaking that's frequently derisively referred to as 'Galliwood'. The cinema release in the UK and America suggest that the mix worked but, apart from pandering to American tastes, does this film work? Well... not entirely but it's close.

The Crimson Rivers (aka: Les Rivieres Pourpres) is the story of two cops. A young urban policeman stuck in a tiny town in the Alps is sent to investigate a vandalised tomb and a burgled school. This leads him to run into ageing solitary legend Pierre Niemans, the man that literally wrote the book on how to be a good policeman. Niemans is investigating the discovery of a mutilated corpse high up in the mountains. Clearly the two sets of crimes are linked. The two cops are lead on a chase through the claustrophobically incestuous world of a community surrounding one of France's leading universities where they've been selectively breeding generation after generation of students.

The style and content of this film has drawn flattering comparisons with Se7en and it's easy to see why. Mutilated bodies, elaborate mythology-infused conspiracies and unconventional cops... To be fair, the comparison's a little too flattering because, unlike Se7en, Crimson Rivers' slick competence and high production values mask a film with some serious issues.

If you listen to the director's commentaries you hear the director talking about how he essentially dropped all the scenes from the novel that were expository and therefore 'boring'. The book and the original screenplay allegedly spent far more time establishing the murderer's motives and the exact details of the psychosis that fuels the murders. If you look at other serial killer films like Se7en or Silence Of The Lambs you see that the psychosis gets as much exploration as the crimes themselves. This is because a book or a film about serial killers is a work about a serial killer, not just a bunch of brutal murders. The result is that the film sits uncomfortably between three different genres because it lacks the action to work as an action movie, the bloodlust of a horror movie and the psychological depth psychological depth of the serial killer film. In fact, Kassovitz's desire to take out all the boring bits manages to render the plot almost incomprehensible. If you blink you'll miss the scene where the killer's motives are explained and even those seem faintly ridiculous when you compare them with Grangé's novel, which did convincingly sell the murderer's state of mind. This makes the film appear less intelligent than it is because most viewers are left with the impression that the plot is a vague subtext used to string together a series of set pieces that are sometimes drawn from the action genre, other times from the horror genre and other times from the psychological thriller genre. This film's biggest problem is a lack of intellectual integrity.

There's evidence elsewhere of the intellectual integrity of the film being undermined, particularly if you consider the scene with the skinheads. The commentary explains that the fight scene was added as a laugh because Cassel kickboxes in his spare time. It adds nothing to the film and its goofy video game stylings undermine the atmosphere of gothic claustrophobia that characterises the rest of the film. The film also climaxes with a computer-rendered avalanche that is so out of keeping with the low key tone of the rest of the film that they might as well have had the killer turn into a gigantic computer generated demon and have Jean Reno fight it to the death using Kung Fu Hustle-style CGI martial arts.

However, despite these lapses in creative judgement there's a lot to recommend this film. Firstly, the film is incredibly bold. While the genre blending doesn't work as well as it did in something like Brotherhood Of The Wolf, that brought Hong Kong action and X-Files' tropes to bear on French period drama, there is a real desire to do something new here by grafting action movie pacing and action onto the blend of horror and psycho thriller that we saw in Se7en. Admittedly, the result is a film that doesn't satisfy as an action, horror of psychological thriller but I feel boldness should be applauded.

Secondly, for a European film this film has amazingly high production values. The piece is beautifully researched and shot, showing us a side of France that is rarely seen. The acting is also pretty solid despite the lack of real character-building substance to the script, Cassel is his usual charismatic self and Reno shows more friskiness than he has in a long time. Even the special effects are good; particularly noteworthy is the first body, which is unbelievably lifelike (um... despite being dead... and fake).

Thirdly (and this is also true of the sequel), Crimson Rivers is an exploration of European popular mythology. American popular mythology is well explored by genre artists. We all know about the Christian weirdness of the American South and the postmodern pantheon of old gods explored by neil Gaiman in American Gods, but surprisingly little work has been done into the urban myths and fears of contemporary Europe. Even China Miéville's King Rat imported immigrant myths and Gaiman's Neverwhere was less a look at London's mythology than the construction of a fictional mythology using the London Underground as a template. The Crimson Rivers films look at the spectre of Nazism that still has a special place in the minds of all Europeans, particularly the French, some of who collaborated with the Germans and formed the hated Vichy government. It's also intriguingly anti-academic and anti-rural in portraying academia as an incestuous body where the development of the next generation of academics is monitored and controlled rather than grounded in any kind of notion of freedom. The skinheads and weirdoes who populate Crimson Rivers' mountain towns are as much an expression of urban fear as the hillbilly rapists in Deliverance.

Despite the genetic engineering this is a film that ultimately doesn't quite work. It's wonderful to look at and a good watch but the plot and the way it is handled fail to satisfy, leaving you feeling a bit cheated. However, despite the structural problems there are some lovely ideas here both about filmmaking and about European culture that make the film worth checking out.
Crimson Rivers

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