The Crimson Rivers (Les Rivières Pourpres)

 
Robin Clifford 
Laura Clifford 

Murder is in the air in the remote French Alps university town of Guernon. A body is found in the mountains, the product of a sadistic ritual killing, and Inspector Pierre Niemans (Jean Reno) is sent all the way from Paris to investigate. Meanwhile, in another, nearby city, Lieutenant Max Kerkerian (Vincent Cassel) is brought in by the cops to probe into a vandalism case at a local school. But, these two seemingly separate cases turn out to be tightly intertwined in the serial killer thriller, "Crimson Rivers."

Robin:
I walked in to "Crimson Rivers" fully expecting to like it. After all, it has the great Jean Reno, the appealing Vincent Cassel (the voice of Monsieur Hood in "Shrek") and it is the sophomore effort by director Mathieu Kassovitz who made such a striking debut with his much-awarded 1995 film "Hate." When the film started to roll, I was struck by how similar it felt to David Fincher's psycho-thriller, "Se7en." The blood imagery of the credit sequence, the gruesome close-up of an insect-covered corpse and the tense score made me think that we may have something special here. And things do start out that way.

Inspector Niemans journeys from Paris to the isolated university nestled in a valley right by a huge Alpine glacier to investigate the heinous murder of the school's librarian. He soon finds, with the help of the school's resident glaciologist, Fanny Ferreira (Nadia Fares), the body of another alumnus brutalized in the same manner - hands cut off and eyes surgically removed. As the detective tries to get to the bottom of the mutilation murders, his counterpart, Kerkerian, is trying to make sense of a grave desecration and a break in at a public school administration office. Their paths soon cross and they come to find that the university fathers are hiding a deep, very dark secret.

The sheer style of the production of "The Crimson Rivers" makes it an eminently watchable film and, for the first two-thirds, it holds you in its dark, creepy grip. The appropriately moody music and artistic camera work, combined with charismatic leads, create an intriguing world that begs for an original, captivating story. But, once the characters and story are established, things happen that made me know, not just think, where the story is going. From that moment of realization, the film became a matter of marking time after my guesses are proved correct. This is too bad since things started off with a bang.

Jean Reno is subdued as the Parisian inspector in charge of the murder investigations, but, as always, maintains a solid presence throughout the film. Vincent Cassel, on the other hand, cuts an amusing, insouciant swath as the tough, capable Lt. Kerkerian. Together, the two actors work well and show a lot of chemistry. The rest of the cast are there to give the leads something to play off of but not too much more. Castle's father, veteran these Jean-Pierre Cassel, gives dignity to his role of the savvy doctor who knows the depth of the institution's dark secrets and pays dearly for that knowledge. Tonio Descanvelle and Olivier Rousset as a pair of bumbling cops ordered to assist Kerkerian provide moments of comic relief that help to lighten the overall serious tone of the film.

Techs are terrific, particularly the stunning photography (coupled with some amazing glacier locations) by prolific veteran cinematographer Thierry Abrogate. Airboat's eye for the miser en scene makes for some splendid visuals that, almost, take your mind off of the failed story. Production design, by Thierry Flam, is strongly influenced by the likes of "The Silence of the Lambs" and the aforementioned "Se7en." The crew behind the camera does their best to make the look of "Crimson Rivers" be exceptional. It's too bad the story that hangs on the production is not equal to the efforts of the technicians.

The script, by Kassovitz and Jean-Christopher Grange (from his novel), starts off with a bang, but ends with a predictable, trite whimper. The nebulous evil plot by the college dons, involving Nazi eugenics, discovered by the intrepid investigators culminates in a flat, obvious ending that does not satisfy. A mystery thriller needs to keep the viewer on tenterhooks until the very end (think about "The Sixth Sense," for example) and this one doesn't. I like the style but question the substance of "Crimson Rivers" and give it a B-.

Laura:
On the same day that Paris detective Pierre Niemans (Jean Reno, "The Visitors") is sent to the Alpine town of Guernon to investigate a grizzly murder, young cop Max Kerkerian (Vincent Cassel, "Elizabeth") is 180 miles away looking into the desecration of a child's grave.  Kerkerian's trail leads him to a suspect just as that suspect has become another victim in the serial killer case Niemans has identified in cowriter/director Mathieu Kassovitz' "The Crimson Rivers."

Adapted from the novel by Kassovitz and author Jean-Christophe Grange, "The Crimson Rivers" is being marketed as "Seven" meets "The Silence of the Lambs," but plays like "The Boys From Brazil" meets "Cliffhanger."

The film opens with Director of Photography Thierry Arbogast's ("The Professional," "The Fifth Element") camera slowly traversing a mutilated, maggot-infested corpse like a mysterious landscape.  Vet Niemans notes that the victim's hands were axed and the stumps cauterized while various incisions were made on the live victim for about five hours before death. The man's eyeballs have been removed and the sockets filled with decades old acid rain (which seeps out like a tear from beyond the grave).

The mountain climber who discovered the body suspended 150 feet in the air aids Niemans in finding the source of that rain, and a second victim, within the glaciers she studies.  Fanny (Nadia Fares, "Les Grandes Bouches") works for the ancient University of Guernon, where the victim was Librarian, deflecting avalanches from the school, but clearly has little use for the faculty or its students.  The remote locale has resulted in scholastic inbreeding and genetic problems which are now mysteriously impacting the local villagers as well.

Kerkerian discovers that the girl whose crypt has been emblazoned with a swastika died in a horrific road accident witnessed by her mother who subsequently went mad.  He tracks her down to a convent where the blind woman has taken the "Vow of Shadows."  She tells him her daughter was killed by demons.  Local skinheads provide a clue which leads Max into Niemans' path.

French icon Reno lends authority to his character, barreling along from one discovery to the next while offering little explanation to Max.  His stoic nature is well used - Reno can put shadings on a grunted response - and his character's Achilles' heel, a fear of dogs, is mined by Kassovitz for humor, tension and ultimately irony.  Unfortunately, Reno can't save a late attempt at romantic inclinations towards Fanny which seem to come out of nowhere.

Cassel is even more fun to watch as the edgy, pot-smoking cop stuck in a backwater.  When surprising events allow him to take risks he steps up to the plate.  His partnering with Reno is standard buddy cop fare, wisely left until late in the film.  As Max is to Neimans, so are two blundering local cops to Max.  Tonio Descanvelle and Olivier Rousset add lots of color whether grabbing an on-duty glass of red wine at a local bar or attempting to flirt with young nuns.

"The Crimson Rivers" is a striking looking film, whether a backlit figure is opening a tomb in a dark crypt or Niemans is getting his first look at a brightly glowing glacial cave.  Kassovitz turns on the action adventure elements like a Hollywood pro while maintaining the stylings of a European. Yet he can't resist lifting an image clearly recognizable from "Silence" or setting a Grand Guignol tableau that's more silly than scary. Ultimately "The Crimson Rivers" sinks under the ludicrousness of its plotting despite its assured style and engaging stars.

C

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