By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Photo by Michael Powers
A born provocateur, the young actor and director Mathieu Kassovitz is blessed or burdened, depending on how dainty you like your French film, with a most un-Gallic taste for apocalypse. His 1995 film Hate, which dealt with the aftermath of a race riot in a rundown suburban Paris housing project, argued the case for France as a police state. In his new film, Kassovitz is working with material not his own — The Crimson Rivers is based on a novel by Jean-Christophe Grangé, with whom Kassovitz co-wrote the screenplay — but it’s not hard to guess what drew him to this action-thriller set in an elite academy with master-race ambitions. The movie mutters darkly of fascism, and, like Hate, its lordly excursions into political sociology confirm Kassovitz as a more gifted aesthete than theorist.
And a quasi-American aesthete at that. It’s easy to see why Sony, which is releasing The Crimson Rivers under its Tristar banner, would put its money behind Kassovitz, whose urgently hyperbolic shooting style owes more to today’s aggressive young American stylists than to any French forebears — unless it be the wild and woolly Luc Besson, with whom Kassovitz worked as an actor in The Fifth Element. If Hate came across as ripped-off American ghetto rap, The Crimson Rivers has the chill, chortling expertise of a David Fincher special, and the same stubborn determination to wring ugliness from beauty, and vice versa. Perhaps because of its classy setting — a ritzy school nestled in the sumptuous snowy sweeps of the French Alps — the film opens with a maliciously slow pan around bloody human flesh crawling with worms and roaches. This is mere foreplay, for soon the camera will pull back to show us the bloodhound mug of Jean Reno — a good guy, for once — gazing at the corpse of a young man, curled up like a fetus and bluish-white with the pallor of death, with stumps where his hands should be.
The man, it turns out, was a star teacher and former pupil at the college, and Reno’s coolly impassive Pierre Niemans, a policeman and a legend in his field, is getting no help with his inquiries from a school administration by turns defensive and evasive. Meanwhile, miles away from the scene of this crime, another investigation is under way. Max Kerkerian, a hotheaded young cop with a criminal past (played by Vincent Cassel with the same delightfully thuggish truculence he brought to the doomed Jewish delinquent at the center of Hate), is trying to find out who desecrated the mausoleum of a little girl who died a violent death 20 years earlier — and coming up similarly short even after a ghoulish chat with the child’s mother (Dominique Sanda, enjoying the opportunity to play madwoman in the attic), who’s now a cloistered nun. The separate investigations bring the two cops — your standard odd couple, bantering strenuously for comic relief — together, with some ambiguous help from an athletic young avalanche controller (Nadia Farès), in pursuit of a methodical killer who, strewing the path with macabre clues, clearly wants to be found out.
If Kassovitz knew what Hitchcock knew — when you want to wind up your audiences, you have to lull them with regular doses of downtime — he’d give us time to breathe between shocks. The Crimson Rivers never lets up: A door can’t shut without sounding like a bomb going off; mutilated bodies show up with clockwork punctuality, gratuitously underscored by a relentlessly overbearing soundtrack; a thunder-and-lightning show ushers in the undeniably clever shocker of a denouement. Still, were it not for Kassovitz’s palpable terror of losing our attention for even a moment, the movie would have made a perfectly serviceable slice of Gothic horror.
But Kassovitz wants more. It seems the murders are connected to the latest incarnation of lebensborn, the Nazis’ loony attempt to produce a master race by mating “Aryan” types — standard sci-fi stuff. Fashionable though it is right now to find the seeds of fascism under every pebble, it’s a long way from Nazi Germany to contemporary France. Just as it’s a long haul from cloning Dolly to cloning man, our genetic scientists are discovering — never mind creating — a society of übermenschen, an ambition no geneticist has owned up to lately.
You can be snickering along as you watch a certain kind of Hollywood weepie — the kind that appears to have been written for television in collaboration with a particularly orthodox family therapist — when a moment of truth unencumbered by jargon will, without warning, flip your heart over and reduce you to a helpless puddle on the floor. I still can’t see Ordinary People without becoming undone by the scene at the end, in which father Donald Sutherland tells neglected son Timothy Hutton that the reason he never got on his case was because the boy always did the job so efficiently for himself.
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