The Crimson Rivers Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the French Region 2 release of The Crimson Rivers. An excellent, utterly overlooked French thriller gets a stunning DVD release, although it’s sadly missing subtitles of any kind.

The Film

The serial killer genre is one that has been rehashed over and over again. It has produced some truly classic films, from Fritz Lang’s M in 1931 to Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs and David Fincher’s Se7en, but most tend to be decidedly mediocre, with such miserable efforts as The Bone Collector being the most representative examples. However, this French effort is head and shoulders above most of the competition, managing to combine thrilling action scenes with an intricate and convoluted plot.

The set up is both simple ,and paradoxically very complex. The story follows the initially paralleled stories of Niemans (Reno), a world weary senior policeman, and Max (Cassel), a younger policeman, as Niemans investigates a spate of horrific murders in a small mountain town and Max is drawn into an investigation as to why young girl’s graves are being desecrated 200 miles away. As the plot thickens, such wildly disparate elements as Nazis, genetic engineering, incest and kickboxing are all drawn together, and the film builds towards what should be an unforgettable conclusion. Unfortunately, the film is partially let down by a twist that elicits the response ‘Oh come on’. However, there’s a lot left to enjoy.

The cast is excellent. Reno is his usual world-weary self, although it’s a pleasant change to see him being lugubrious and Gallic in French rather than in heavily accented English in some secondary part, and he gives his best performance since Leon here. Cassel is equally good in a rather more action-orientated role (i.e he gets to beat people up and chase them, while Reno stands around looking for clues); why he’s not a bigger star outside France is something of a mystery, as he has a genuine charisma that’s comparatively rare in films at the moment. Fares is also good in a deceptively complex role (incidentally, do not look at any of the extras if you don’t want the twist given away!), and the rest of the cast are all up to their respective roles, including Cassel’s father Jean-Pierre in a nice cameo as an eye doctor.

It’s very hard to judge this film, as the ending very nearly ruins everything; conversely, there is a lot of very good stuff here, both in the witty banter between Reno and Cassel and the exciting action scenes, as well as the horrifically detailed autopsy scenes (do not watch the opening scene while eating, it’s not nice). It’s certainly well up to the standard of most Hollywood films, and is highly enjoyable for 95% of its length; however, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that a simpler and less baroque ending might have been rather more satisfying than the overblown finale that the film in fact has, and demotes it from potential classic status to merely that of a very entertaining film.

The Picture

An utterly glorious, THX-certified transfer, this is as close to perfection as you’re likely to get on DVD. It’s comparatively rare for much time to be specifically devoted to R2-only discs, especially by THX, but this is the exception. Colours are perfectly pitched, keeping the snow looking crisply white and the blacks dark, and there is no evidence of grain or print damage. A five star, 10/10 effort, and an immensely pleasing experience to watch.

The Sound

Well, it’s in French. Without subtitles of any sort. If that’s no good, go and watch Se7en again, as you really will miss out on a lot if you can’t at least understand spoken French. However, if you can, this is a good mix. Surrounds are used fairly constantly, even in the dialogue-orientated scenes, and there’s some nice use of the rear speakers in the action scenes, as well as a good spread-out musical score. Obviously, for the non-native speaker, it’s rather hard to hear and understand every word of French spoken, but thankfully the clarity of the sound presentation makes that more accessible here than it perhaps would be on another release.

The Extras

This is where the disc really comes into its own. After watching the extras on this disc, you will start to wonder why it is that a comparatively obscure French film can have hours of supplementary material, whereas a film like Pulp Fiction or Blade Runner is given appalling treatment on DVD. I’ve often criticised companies for lazy use of promotional material on the DVDs, but this is truly a revelation. Offhand, I can think of only the Terminator 2 and Die Hard DVDs that have as much content on them, although the to-be-reviewed SE of Dobermann does a pretty fantastic job as well.

First up is the commentary. This isn’t going to be for those who found the film fairly hard-going in terms of trying to understand the dialogue, as there aren’t any pictures here! However, Kassovitz makes some interesting points about his view of genre films, and there’s some amusing banter with Cassel and Reno that makes at least part of this track worth a listen. The second commentary track is an isolated score with composer commentary; as usual with these things, you’ll probably want to have it on in the background. The last thing to mention on the first disc are the superb (and exclusive) THX logos which are modelled on the film’s mountain setting.

It’s the second disc where we really get into extra material overload. The main extra is a good (50 minute) documentary, where the film is discussed, often surprisingly candidly, by the cast and crew, as well as including some moderately interesting deleted scenes. The next section of the disc, wittily called ‘Autopsie’ goes into detail on three key sequences from the film, with multiple featurettes, multi-angle scenes, on-set footage, Easter Eggs etc. There’s an especially good Easter Egg of footage of the DVD being prepared, the commentary being recorded etc, and there’s another good one of Cassel being trained to ‘know Kung Fu’, for want of a better description. The refreshing thing about all these featurettes is that they don’t rely on clips from the film, but just get on with answering any technical questions a viewer might have.

And that’s not all. The third section of extras, ‘In Memoriam’, contains extensive storyboards, a short featurette about the set decorator, production photos, trailers, etc, etc. One of the most interesting parts of this section was a short feature showing how the film was promoted by Cassel (who really doesn’t look very happy to be there) and Reno (who speaks the only English you will hear on this DVD). All this is genuinely interesting stuff, even if it’s likely to make you weary of watching the thing after a while- a case of DVD extra overload, perhaps…


If you don’t understand (or don’t like) French, don’t buy this disc. If you do understand French and like intelligent thrillers, this is an easy recommendation, especially as the disc has top-notch visual and audio presentation, and comes with one of the most extensive selections of extras yet seen on a DVD. Now, if only they’d do one of these for Delicatessen….

Alexander Larman

Updated: Jul 18, 2001

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