Dir: Mathieu Kassovitz. France. 105mins.
Prod cos: Legende Entreprises, Gaumont, TF1 Productions in association with StudioCanal. Int'l sales: Gaumont, tel: (33) 1 46 43 2000. Domestic dist: GBVI. Exec prod: Alain Goldman. Scr: Mathieu Kassovitz and Jean-Christophe Grange, based on Grange's novel. DoP: Thierry Arbogast. Ed: Maryline Monthieu. Prod des: Thierry Flamand. Sound: Vincent Tulli. Music: Bruno Coulais. Main cast: Jean Reno, Vincent Cassel, Nadia Fares, Dominique Sanda, Jean-Pierre Cassel.
Actor-turned-director Mathieu Kassovitz exploded onto the auteur scene in 1995 with La Haine, but fell two years later with his over-ambitious Assassin(s). Now he returns with a big-budget and predictable genre film. A producer-initiated project meant to cash in on the international success of its source novel, The Crimson Rivers could have been made by any number of technically-competent directors. Coming from Kassovitz, it is all the more disappointing for its lack of personality and mostly knee-jerk thrills.
Crimson Rivers is a macabre detective story in the manner of Seven and other murky neo-gothic chillers. The ingredients are formulaic: an unspeakably gruesome series of murders, a sadistic killer who deliberately leaves a trail of pseudo-mystical clues, and the genre's visual hallmark of menacingly-underlit and dingy interiors often concealing unspeakably gruesome revelations - and through which the detective heroes poke their flashlights when they could just as easily hit the light switch.
Based on the French thriller by Jean-Christophe Grange, who co-scripted with Kassovitz, Crimson Rivers provides a few more wrinkles on the serial killer theme, weaving a rather convoluted plot involving neo-Nazi sects and Mengelian experiments. For non-readers of the book, the film will remain incomprehensible, since Kassovitz and Grange have not found the key to transposing the story's complex structure to the screen.
One element sets Crimson Rivers apart from its predecessors: the action takes place around an elite college high in the French Alps, not in a murky urban setting. Photographed in all its sinister splendour by Bruno Arbogast, he manages to render the exteriors even more claustrophobic than the interiors.
Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel do their usual thing as two cops whose separate investigations merge into one. Their co-billing no doubt contributes to the film's excellent French opening, although overseas potential will also depend on the book's widely-translated popularity.