Saturday, June 25, 2011

Film Critique: The Crimson Rivers (2000)

I labelled this as a film critique rather than review, because I have a ton of spoilers below and basically pick apart the plot. I'm sitting down to do this because I honestly enjoy watching the movie at least once or twice a year, but when I stop to really think about the plot and all it entails, I ask myself "Why?"

The Crimson Rivers (2000)
(French title: Le Rivieres Pourpres)
Film Critique by J. Rocci
Rated: Rated R for violence/grisly images and language
Starring: Jean Reno, Vincent Cassel, and Nadia Fares

[Contains Major Spoilers]

Well, if you're approaching this movie with the expectation of a believable serial killer tale, the film flops horribly. However, if you're a fan of grisly action and haunting cinematography, the film excels on the entertainment scale.

Jean Reno's portrayal of Pierre Niemans, a Parisian detective (they never quite explain what department he is), is thrilling, if only because he comes across as very jaded and weary of the death around him. As his polar opposite, Vincent Cassel plays Lt. Max Kerkerian, an excitable young former-investigator who bends (as well as breaks) the law in order to get results. Overall, it is the dynamic between the two characters that make the film worth watching.

Viewing the special features commentary on the DVD was enlightening (which, by then, I was in desperate need of some answers), but it made me want to smack the director, Mathieu Kassovitz, if only for his pretentiousness. He hypes Crimson Rivers as a ground-breaking French police drama, yet admits he was making changes to the script the night before shooting most scenes, and to purposely leaving several story threads loose because he couldn't create an answer for them. (Side note: Cassel comes across as extremely annoyed with the script situation during his interview, which earned him brownie points with me. Watching the final product, I share his ire.)

There is an English translation of the book the movie is based on, with the same title. I warn you, the book plot is way different from the movie in several respects, including the ending, so it doesn't really answer any of the open movie threads.

From a technical perspective, as a lover of forensics and police drama, I felt that the script was sorely lacking any scientific merit and most of the supposed questions unearthed could have easily been answered by a simple finger print check at the beginning. As it is, the writers would have us believe identical twins have the exact same finger prints (which they don't) in an attempt to cover up this little slip. The lack of technical medical details is mostly played off as "Oh, we're a small town and don't get this sort of thing ever," but I'm of the opinion it added to the impression that the director had no clue how to handle this sort of plot. While it is a revenge story instead of serial killer one, Niemans never really gets into the mind of the killer, merely allowing himself to be tugged along by the hand from body to body. From other characters, we learn he is a criminology legend, but I think he was burnt out by the time of the story because his methods weren't really that effective.

Kerkerian's story line is even more absurd. Yes, the grave desecration is horrible, and it is an odd coincidence that the girl's files are missing from the school, but to go to the extent he did to solve a vandalism case seems implausible. Sarzac must be the safest little town in France if the police have that much time on their hands. The fight scene with the skin heads was an interesting example of French kick-boxing, but was completely pointless. All it established is the fact that the lieutenant has a quick temper, which we can pick up in other more relevant scenes. When the police cruiser breaks down, it's implied he stole a vehicle from a civilian to get to Guernon, just to track a suspect that might have had something to do with the grave desecration (where nothing was even taken from the tomb) and is just a hunch about the school. I don't know about the law in France, but that's only allowed in the States in emergency life-or-death situations, with official justification at a later date as part of an inquiry. I think there needed to be a more developed reason for his urgency with the case. The scene with Judith's mother, Andree, seemed to be thrown in just for atmosphere alone, complete with cryptic nun statements and cataract-like eyes. The build-up for the scene was great but, once he's in there talking to Andree, you're asking yourself why they bothered filming such an obvious weak spot in the script. I was tempted to fast forward.

When the two characters meet, Niemans' silent-tough-cop attitude is played off nicely with Kerkerian's hyper-puppy-babble and teasing, so it's interesting to see what the two will do next. However, it just doesn't seem realistic that an experienced police detective would bring a young lieutenant onto a case just because they share a suspect (who is now in the morgue). They both make a point of saying they work alone, yet Kerkerian is accepted as another cop on the case without question and becomes Niemans' partner of sorts, with no permission asked and no paperwork. Yet another weak plot device to push our heroes toward the bitter end.

Another thing that got to me is that the eugenics theory is interesting and has so much potential, yet is never really discussed in the movie. The theory is explained, with Nazi references galore (a recurring theme), but no true reason is given as to why the antagonists would turn to it as a solution. Were *they* Nazis? I could understand if they were just desperate to save their way of life and rejuvenate the shrinking gene pool, but no one gives you the back story behind the major focus of the plot. The eugenics theory is just plunked in your lap, and you're expected to nod and go along with it. Dr. Cherneze (Jean-Pierre Cassel, Vincent's real life father) offers an engrossing scene where you learn about the inbreeding at the school, and he makes you want to get deeper into his story, but he is instead brutally murdered before any more scenes and the history lesson is dropped.

All these half-stories and hints, interspersed in the action sequences, seem to be building up to a great climax. Then our heroes stumble across some body parts, realize who the killer is, and go running off to save the day in a completely unrealistic and irrelevant action scene that says nothing and means even less.

(Side note: The scene at the lift, where Niemans actually draws a gun on the other officers there and says, "I have to go alone," over and over, only to be followed onto the lift by Kerkerian, struck me as extremely funny. I don't think I was supposed to laugh at that, though.)

The ending is a bloody, unresolved mess that just raises more questions and doesn't do much explaining, like: How did the twins switch back and forth all these years when one is missing a finger? Which one did the actual killing, because at times it's implied both did, yet Fanny (Nadia Fares) seems reluctant to help her twin out? How did Judith survive without her mother all those years? Where are the parents? Where did the dean's son come into all this? Was the dean involved, as they implied, and if so, why wasn't he killed as well? Why kill the children of the professors who stole Judith's identity, when they were all of two or five at the time it happened? Were they continuing their fathers' research? Did Sertys go through all the desecration trouble to protect his father's reputation or his own?

All these questions, and no answers. Any chance of solving them comes merely from what the audience can infer (after several viewings).

While I usually like having to fill in the blanks myself, after watching the commentary, it became clear that not even the people making the film had the answers. I identified heartily with Kerkerian, because at least he admitted he was clueless.

The technical work excelled. Interesting and continuous camera action kept you from becoming too bored with the plot. Most of the tension came from the lighting and soundtrack, although at times both were overdone. The grisly corpse shown in the beginning had no relevance in the film at all, but showcased the great special effects. In my opinion, the money spent on that should have gone towards hiring a script continuity consultant.

The Crimson Rivers gets kudos from me just because it was an entertaining action flick, with stilted dialogue and weak plot notwithstanding. First viewing was with English dubbing and English subtitles, second viewing was with English dubbing alone. The subtitles have funnier dialogue.

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