Crimson Rivers [Les Rivieres pourpres]
by Del Harvey
Tightly plotted suspense thriller. Reno, again, shows us why he’s so much fun to watch.
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A body is discovered on the side of a mountain high in the French Alps. The body has been mutilated and left in such a perverse state that the local gendarmes call Paris for help. Enter Inspector Niemans (Jean Reno). Something of a living legend, Niemans has taught criminology as well as building a reputation as a policeman who can crack a case. But he does not seem impressed with himself, in spite of the awe afforded him by the other officers. There may be something behind the Paris police sending Niemans to a remote town which has been home to a special institution of higher learning for so long that it has become part of the town.
For, in the little town of Guernon is a university that exists practically within a vacuum. The students, upon graduation, become the faculty. Teachers meet and marry, and the cycle continues, with offspring becoming educator and progenator, over and over again. The genetic strains are robust, but eventually give way to less than desirable students and future leaders. This is the information Niemans gathers from the town ophthalmologist, Dr. Cherneze (Jean-Pierre Cassel), a former educator at the university himself. When he is shown photos of the mutilated and obviously tortured body, he says that the eyes and hands are the body’s most personal tools. Their removal sends a message to the investigators.
Sixty miles distant, in the small town of Sarzac, another inspector, this young man having been cast out of the Paris police, is called upon to investigate the desecration of a tomb and the break-in at a local school. The two crimes seem unrelated at first, until young Inspector Max (Vincent Cassel) discovers that the only things taken from the school are the files of a young girl killed in a horrendous highway accident and whose body was interred in the same, vandalized tomb.
As Niemans pursues the clues presented by the body left hanging from the mountain, he is acutely aware of the fact that he is being led by the killer, and he is constantly frustrated by the seeming lack of solid clues which reveal any real motive. At the same time, Max’s frustration comes to a head as he confronts the only real suspects, a handful of local skinheads. He seems to be digging quite a hole for himself when a lead suddenly turns up which will take him to Guernon.
Finally meeting, the two investigators forge an odd bond, with the more intelligent Niemans suffering Max’s childish barbs as they begin to bounce ideas off of each other. Niemans has caught on much sooner that the crimes are somehow related, while Max’s gut instinct tells him to follow the intuition of this living legend. As this taut, exciting thriller approaches its climax, the two men are as caught up in the momentum of the chase as we are.
Tightly directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, Crimson Rivers is a film that will keep you guessing right to the end. This is in large part thanks to not only the director’s vision, but also that of a well-wrought script, which was written by the author of the original novel, Jean-Cristophe Grange. The old adage of a film usually not being as good as the book serves only to inspire this viewer to read the book. The film is that good.
Jean Reno was first introduced to American audiences in Le Dernier combat (The Brute), from director Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, Kiss of the Dragon). He is a well-known star in France, but has grown in American filmgoer’s eyes with roles in films such as La Femme Nikita, The Professional, Godzilla, Mission Impossible, French Kiss, and Ronin. Typically portraying the strong, silent antihero, he is atypical in balancing those roles with an intellect and sweet gentility few American actors can manage.
Vincent Cassel, as quick-tempered police inspector Max Kerkerian, is less well-known to American audiences, but he has been seen in Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, and as the voice of Monsiour Hood in Shrek. An actor of enormous popularity in France, Cassel is also the son of Jean-Pierre Cassel, who has a small role in this film as Dr. Bernard Cherneze. Pere Cassel has appeared in numerous films, including Is Paris Burning?, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeousie, and The Three and The Four Musketeers. Another popular actress of Cassel’s era makes a cameo in Crimson Rivers as the mother of the dead little girl, who has become a nun living in darkness as part of her taking the “Vow of the Shadows.” Ms. Dominique Sanda plays Sister Andree, now blind from what she has seen. Her past films include 1900, The Nonconformist, and The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis.
A surprise is young actress Nadia Fares as Fanny, whose job is to protect the university from the danger of avalanche. She becomes both Niemans’ ally and his suspect, and does an excellent job of keeping the audience on their toes.
Crimson Rivers is the kind of film that makes you wonder why can’t we [America] make films this good? The cinematography, editing, sound, acting, direction, and script are all top-notch and, combined, make for a superb thriller. Still in theatres and making its tour of the U.S., I urge you to see this film. It is the best suspense film I have seen in many years.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He lives in Chicago, is a devout Bears fan, and therefore deserving of our sympathy.
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