Director and actor Mathieu Kassovitz had a busy couple of years at the turn of the century. After the success of his breakthrough film, the angry black and white urban political drama La Haine (Hate), he went on to make Assassin(s), starred in Jean Pierre-Jenuet’s Amélie and also adapted Jean-Christophe Grangé’s best-selling novel Les Rivières Pourpres for the big screen.
The latter - a crime thriller - is riddled with cliché, but Kassovitz does manage to create a distinctive dark, haunting atmosphere, and it features a pair of good performances from its stars, Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel. Reno is Commissioner Niemans, a guarded detective from Paris who is sent to the small, rural university town of Guernon in the French Alps to help solve a particularly grisly murder: the body of a local librarian has been discovered with hands and eyes missing, found dangling off a mountain and tied in a foetal position. Cassel is local detective-on-the-rise Max Kerkerian, who is investigating a seemingly unrelated case involving local Nazi-supporting thugs and a desecrated grave.
The inquiry into the gruesome murder isn’t helped by a large dose of small-town suspicion, and proceedings are given a slightly fantastical spin by Kassovitz, whose adaptation incorporates a suspicious, ghostly hooded figure and much talk of the work of ‘demons’ by nuns at the local monastery. A fair amount of the film is shot at night, but by day the Alpine weather and light lend proceedings a decidedly bleak air; there are overhead shots at the beginning which even recall Stanley Kubrick’s opening scenes in The Shining.
The ‘urban cop in a rural environment’ premise has been examined more times than I care to remember, but there’s still something enjoyable about the way the university scholars and local police, mistrustful of Niemans and his Parisian ways, close ranks and refuse to pass on valuable information. Thankfully Niemans isn’t made out to be some kind of super-sleuth, and seems as perplexed as anyone else as to who is behind the murders. Both police officers struggle to make sense of the crimes they are trying to solve, but arrive independently at one suspect’s house, after which the facts begin to become clearer and a straightforward older cop / younger cop dynamic takes hold; this has also been done to death, but Cassel’s performance in particular is charismatic enough to make it just about bearable here.
Unfortunately Kassovitz fails to capitalise on the moody atmospherics of the first half of the film, which he builds up in an assured, measured way; it’s not quite as relentlessly miserable as Se7en but it’s certainly not a million miles away. Then, for reasons I can’t even guess at, the director includes a martial arts fight scene between Kerkerian and some skinheads that copies moves and dialogue from beat-em-up video games like Tekken. The joke is that’s exactly what the skinheads are playing when Kerkerian shows up at their club, but it falls somewhat flat, and is totally out of step with the tone of the film up to that point. A real shame, as the delicate mood is shattered, and the film fails to recover from that point on. Kassovitz attempts to create tension with that age old staple, lightning, which handily illuminates one room so that another eyeless dead body comes into view, but the sheer amount of it is difficult to accept from a film rooted in reality, and the attempts to recapture the dark mood are laughable.
The movie descends into farce by the end, with a straightforward ‘reveal’ and set-piece ending that really do beggar belief. Both of these key events are at odds with the rest of the film, and the film has a conventional ‘Hollywood-style’ ending, which is a shame as there is no sign of the ordinary in the early part of Les Rivières Pourpres. There is also some rushed talk of a secret society practicing eugenics, but the film fails to properly explain who is responsible, and there’s only a line or two explaining why this has been happening. Cassel has hinted at his displeasure regarding the exposition, stating ‘I can’t help explain the film because I didn’t understand it! We cut out everything in the film that was explanatory, therefore “boring” [according to the director]. You end up with a film that’s not boring but you don’t understand it [at] all’.
It feels like an oversight, too, that neither of these two policemen are given any kind of back story. We know Niemans is from Paris, but learn very little else about him. We learn less still about Kerkerian, so it’s difficult to really care much about the pair, even with the reasonably charismatic turns by the actors. We only learn a decent amount of information about one character in the film, and they end up being the prime suspect. Well, actually, the only suspect – a mountaineer named Fanny Ferreira (Nadia Farès).
Though it begins well with an intriguing case of murder and a dark, brooding atmosphere, Kassovitz’s movie ends up relying too heavily on the cinematography of Thierry Arbogast (who worked on Luc Besson’s hitman films Nikita and Léon) and the two performances of the leads, who all help it along as it limps to the finish line. There are many great shots of the mountains, but unfortunately they seem to be at the expense of the characterisation and the scenes in which the plot is explained to a sufficient degree. An attempt to inject a little romance into the final act is also botched. A shame. Still, it’s not a dud, and although the gritty first half is light on action, that first 50 minutes of Les Rivières Pourpres is enjoyable nonetheless.
Directed by: Mathieu Kassovitz
Written by: Jean-Christophe Grangé, Mathieu Kassovitz
Starring: Jean Reno, Vincent Cassel, Nadia Farès
Running Time: 106 minutes