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Friday, Jan. 26, 2001


From any angle, you've seen it before

They've got self-help books for just about every disorder you can think of out there, but I can think of one more niche that needs filling, namely, "Why Good Directors Make Bad Films." Chapter One: The Angle.

The Angle is a crutch, a lifesaver for a director to cling to as he enters the sucking whirlpool of formulaic big-budget films. The angle allows the filmmaker to retain his pride, to imagine that somehow his artistic vision and thematic depth remain intact, even as he squanders his insight in favor of pork-barrel special-effects action.

It's easy to spot this dependency at work: Listen to James Cameron explain how "Terminator 2" is a testament to nonviolence, or Danny Boyle digress on how "The Beach" is the portrait of a generation detached from reality. Or if you really need a case study, try George Lucas, who is prone to describing the "Star Wars" series as some kind of ur-myth of all mankind. (Yeah, that and Jar-Jar Binks, all in one film. I bow down to his genius.)

Matthieu Kassovitz (see interview) is certainly a talented guy -- he can act as well as direct -- and his 1997 film "La Haine" was one of the best of the decade, a film straight from the heart, an uncompromising look at the underclass of the Parisian suburbs. Where Kassovitz's debut, "Cafe au Lait," had looked at racial issues with a humorous glint, "La Haine" arose from a simmering fury, and detonated on the screen.

His latest, "Les Rivieres Pourpres (Crimson Rivers)," is a serial-killer thriller, a formulaic exercise in good guys and bad guys, with taciturn super-cops and a killer who's always one step ahead. It's hard to see the continuity between this and what Kassovitz has done so far -- it appears like an attempt to beat Luc Besson at his own game of making Euro-films that look just like Hollywood. (Don't they get it? Americans don't do subtitles -- the only way this film breaks big in the States is as a remake.)

Aaaah, but Kassovitz has his "angle," and here it's covert Nazis and skinheads, and a swastika defacing a grave. These "sociopolitical" elements -- embedded in an otherwise well over-the-top scenario -- allow Kassovitz to imagine "Les Rivieres Pourpres" as a logical development in his body of work, rather than a sell-out, which is what this clearly is, closer in spirit to "Vertical Limit" than "La Haine."

Fair enough, every director deserves a hit, and "Crimson Rivers" could have been a pretty good one. For the first few reels, "Les Rivieres Pourpres" is engagingly creepy, with a convoluted plot that leaves you hanging on what will come next. Jean Reno plays a coolly professional detective investigating a particularly ugly murder, a mutilated corpse discovered frozen solid high in the Alps. Vincent Kassel plays a kick-boxing dope-smoking cop on another case, looking into the defacement of a young girl's grave, and the strangely related break-in at a local school, in which the dead girl's photo and records were stolen. Eventually these two investigations end up on the same track, as the leads point toward some crypto-fascists with an unhealthy fascination with genetic purity.

But like so many films that want to be blockbusters, "Les Rivieres Pourpres" loses its nerve halfway through, and descends into stale car chases and, yes, a plot twist that involves an evil twin. It's like the David Lynch of "Blue Velvet" directed the first half, and Tony Scott of "The Fan" directed the second.

Actually, "Les Rivieres Pourpres" follows the flight-path of "Seven" pretty closely, starting with the grisly aftermath of a ritual murder (shot in revolting close-up; bug-phobics beware) and ending with a plot twist that's designed to sucker-punch you.

On the plus side Kassovitz has learned a few tricks from "Seven's" David Fincher, and manages to use music, framing and lighting to squeeze out the maximum amount of dread. Cameraman Thierry Arbogast (Luc Besson's regular) doesn't create as memorable a mood as Darius Khondji did for "Seven," but his work is technically excellent. He can conjure up wide-screen windswept mountain peaks or the gloomy musty confines of a crypt with equal impact.

Shame about the script, though, which was based on a best seller by Jean-Christophe Grange. One can only assume that the novel lost some clarity when compressed into a screenplay. I watched this film with three other friends, and though none of us could tie the plot strands together at the end, we could all spot plenty of gaping holes.

Like "Wild Things" and "Unbreakable" and dozens of other films made in the post-"Usual Suspects" era, the filmmakers seem to think that a shock ending will freeze your brain so much, you'll simply forget everything you'd been trying to piece together for the past 90 minutes. Well, guess what? That also makes it easy to forget the film completely 90 minutes after seeing it. Chalk this one up as Agatha Christie for people with Attention Deficit Disorder.

"Les Rivieres Pourpres" opens Jan. 27 at Shibutoh Cine Tower, Shibuya, and other theaters.

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