The Crimson Rivers (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

There are many elements to making a good film. Being a film director is one of the most complex examples of a job requiring multitasking. You need to establish mood and atmosphere, you have to tell a narrative, you have to have interesting characters with realistic motivations, you have to know about sound mixing, photography, lighting, editing, music, scene transitions, casting - so many things.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz is not average at any of these individual elements. When it comes to mood and atmosphere, he is up there with anyone - Welles, Tarkovsky, Fincher, you name it. This is a grisly murder mystery set in the French Alps, centered around a mysterious private university in an isolated mountain pass. It seems that the people in the university are inbred, and the eugenic experimentation provides one of the keys to the plot. Set in the stark whiteness of Alpine winter, among half-deserted buildings which rise creakily from the banks of icy rivers, and among crevices in the very glaciers, the film establishes convincingly that the complete isolation of this community could really occur even in the middle of a developed country. While the university itself is not different from any other university, Kassovitz established with camera angles and music that it is a place free from any normality, an unhealthy place with forbidden secrets. The French version of the Overlook Hotel.

Any given scene in the film is a monument to skillful filmmaking and consistent atmosphere. The photography is impressive, the editing is slick, the score is effective.

And the characters are interesting, if not especially innovative. Jean Reno plays a world-weary Parisian detective investigating a series of unpleasant torture-murders which have baffled the local gendarmes. Vincent Cassel is a young tough guy turned cop, who is investigating a grave desecration. Their investigations are shown in parallel until they stumble upon each other when following separate clues. Their cases are somehow related. Reno and Cassel established their characters beautifully. 


none, except mutilated corpses

And then it all fell apart because of the narrative. 

Once upon a time, Orson Welles invested all his directorial brilliance into a grade-B script about border towns. In the hands of the average director, A Touch of Evil would have been worse than the average straight-to-vid. In the hands of Orson Welles, it became a film to be studied by aspiring directors. A similar situation exists with Crimson Rivers. In the hands of an average director, it is an Eric Roberts movie. It appears to be brilliant only because Kassovitz directed it. Students of film and lovers of filmmaking may love it. Most viewers will not find it worthwhile at all because the plot makes no sense, brilliant scenes are tacked on for no reason, and the characters' motivations are completely unclear in part and in whole. Like Touch of Evil, it is a grade-B movie in the hands of a genius.

The film has an evil twin presumed dead who is not really dead. Need I say more? I will anyway.

Kassovitz seems to have forgotten that he was directing a murder mystery, and that such a film needs to have a sensible resolution and characters that act upon sensible motivations. This has neither. If you watch the film, you'll have no trouble figuring out who the killer is. You'll probably know before the detectives. But why? And what happens in the final showdown? And what does the university experimentation really have to do with it? All of this is completely confusing. The only thing that keeps you from being ticked off at the ending is that you won't care anyway

Other narrative errors abound. Cassel is investigating his petty crimes when he chances upon some insulting skinheads in a gym. The skinheads just happen to be martial arts masters who threaten and insult him. Luckily, he happens to be an even greater martial arts master who beats the crap out of two of them simultaneously. Don't get me wrong. It's a great scene, choreographed in tune with a similar video game, and it's both involving and clever. But it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

I the end of the film, Cassel and Reno are about to ascend a cable lift into stygian mountain darkness. They refuse the assistance of the local authorities. Everyone is holding guns and shotguns on everyone else. Reno says, "I have to do this alone". The local guys point their guns, waiting for an explanation. None is forthcoming. He just says "trust me". Do you know why he just said "trust me?". Because the writer and the director had no goddamned idea why he had to do it "alone". (Cassel was with him). It would have been much smarter if he had taken a cadre of back ups.

There was only one reason to go alone. The characters' motivation was completely inexplicable, but the plot required it. If there were more than two cops, the ending could not have worked out they way they wanted it. Any sensible rewrite would have simply followed Cassel and Reno to the cable car, then up the mountain. There was no need to have the local cops there at all. (Except that somebody needed to know they were going, in order to rescue them when they didn't return, but there would have been other ways to do that.)

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1. Gorgeous film.

  • several featurettes, including a discussion of the book upon which it is based

  • full-length commentary. The cast admitted that they didn't know what was going on, either.

So, what you see when you watch this movie is brilliance and sheer blarney. A grade-B script which is pretty much the same plot as all Eric Roberts movies with a hint of The Boys from Brazil, gussied up very professionally with some murky, ominous, creepy atmosphere which is pretty much The Shining meets SE7EN. 

Can this man direct? Absolutely. Is this a great film? Absolutely not. Great filmmaking, but wasted on a weak project. 

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: no consensus. Anywhere from one and a half to three and a half stars. Ebert 3.5/4, BBC 2/5, Apollo 83/100.

  • Nominated for four Cesar (French academy) awards, including Best Director. (Dominik Moll won, for "With a friend like Harry")

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.8/10, Apollo users 64/100 
  • With their dollars ... it bombed in two US trials, but did about $20 million in France
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. It is an atmospheric masterpiece, but with a muddled plot typical of an American straight-to-video release, except not as good or as clear. 

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