Look, Maman, No Hands!

A born provocateur, young actor/director Mathieu Kassovitz is blessed or burdened, depending on how dainty you like your French film, with a most un-Gallic taste for apocalypse. His 1995 film Hate, which dealt with the aftermath of a race riot in a rundown suburban Paris housing project, argued the case for France as a police state. In his new film, Kassovitz is working with material not his own—The Crimson Rivers is based on a novel by Jean-Christophe Grang, with whom Kassovitz co-wrote the screenplay—but it's not hard to guess what drew him to this action-thriller set in an elite academy with master-race ambitions. The movie mutters darkly of fascism, and, like Hate, its lordly excursions into political sociology confirm Kassovitz as a more gifted aesthete than theorist.

And a quasi-American aesthete at that. It's easy to see why Sony, which is releasing The Crimson Rivers under its Tristar banner, would put its money behind Kassovitz, whose urgently hyperbolic shooting style owes more to today's aggressive young American stylists than to any French forebears—unless it be the wild and woolly Luc Besson, with whom Kassovitz worked as an actor in The Fifth Element. If Hate came across as ripped-off American ghetto rap, The Crimson Rivers has the chill, chortling expertise of a David Fincher special, and the same stubborn determination to wring ugliness from beauty, and vice versa. Perhaps because of its classy setting—a ritzy school nestled in the sumptuous snowy sweeps of the French Alps—the film opens with a maliciously slow pan around bloody human flesh crawling with worms and roaches. This is mere foreplay, for soon the camera will pull back to show us the bloodhound mug of Jean Reno—a good guy, for once—gazing at the corpse of a young man, curled up like a fetus and bluish-white with the pallor of death with stumps where his hands should be.

The man, it turns out, was a star teacher and former pupil at the college, and Reno's coolly impassive Pierre Niemans, a policeman and a legend in his field, is getting no help with his inquiries from a school administration by turns defensive and evasive. Meanwhile, miles away from the scene of this crime, another investigation is under way. Max Kerkerian, a hotheaded young cop with a criminal past (played by Vincent Cassel with the same delightfully thuggish truculence he brought to the doomed Jewish delinquent at the center of Hate), is trying to find out who desecrated the mausoleum of a little girl who died a violent death 20 years earlier—and coming up similarly short even after a ghoulish chat with the child's mother (Dominique Sanda, enjoying the opportunity to play madwoman in the attic), who's now a cloistered nun. The separate investigations bring the two cops—your standard odd couple, bantering strenuously for comic relief—together, with some ambiguous help from an athletic young avalanche controller (Nadia Fars), in pursuit of a methodical killer who, strewing the path with macabre clues, clearly wants to be found out.

If Kassovitz knew what Hitchcock knew—when you want to wind up your audiences, you have to lull them with regular doses of downtime—he'd give us time to breathe between shocks. The Crimson Rivers never lets up.

But Kassovitz wants more. It seems the murders are connected to the latest incarnation of lebensborn, the Nazis' loony attempt to produce a master race by mating “Aryan” types—standard sci-fi stuff. Fashionable though it is right now to find the seeds of fascism under every pebble, it's a long way from Nazi Germany to contemporary France.

You can be snickering along as you watch a certain kind of Hollywood weepie—the kind that appears to have been written for television in collaboration with a particularly orthodox family therapist—when a moment of truth unencumbered by jargon will, without warning, flip your heart over and reduce you to a helpless puddle on the floor. I still can't see Ordinary People without becoming undone by the scene at the end, in which father Donald Sutherland tells neglected son Timothy Hutton that the reason he never got on his case was because the boy always did the job so efficiently for himself.

“Crazy/beautiful”, a teen drama that's rather more graceful than its ungainly title, is the usual across-the-tracks love story with the usual family-reconciliation subtext. Expect no plot surprises either: the only unresolved question is how long it will take for the steady Latino boy from Boyle Heights to rescue the bruised soul of the ratty-haired daughter of Palisades privilege and have his inner child set free in return. Carlos (Jay Hernandez), a mannerly straight-A student and football star, meets Nicole (Kirsten Dunst), a ruinously self-destructive party girl, under the Santa Monica Pier, where she's working off her community-service hours picking up litter. Casual flirtation turns into the love of true opposites, cemented by the fact that each of the lovers is missing a parent. Carlos' hard-working mother (Soledad St. Hilaire) frowns on the relationship, believing it will throw her son off track; Nicole's father (Bruce Davison), a liberal congressman whose office walls are plastered with Robbie Conal posters, tries to stop it because he, too, is convinced that his daughter might screw up the boy's promising future.

Still, you couldn't put a sermon in better hands than those of John Stockwell, who has come up through HBO docudramas, which places him a cut above most other moviemakers of the week. “Crazy/beautiful” has a leisurely local specificity, and Stockwell has a tender way with his actors. The movie's most genuine chemistry is not between Dunst and Hernandez, who are never more than cute together, but between Dunst, a young actress of no small range and courage, and Davison, who does that indefinable, Peter Riegert-like thing of acting from the inside. In the final showdown between Nicole and her father—a quiet, halting exchange stripped of the therapeutic blarney that typically bogs down movies of this kind—we see two people who have spent years not exactly at war, but cruising past each other in wounded silence, turn a corner in their hearts and minds and be straight with each other for once. I was Jell-O.

The Crimson Rivers was directed by Mathieu Kassovitz; written by Jean-Christophe Grang and Kassovitz, based on the novel by Grang; produced by Alain Goldman; and stars Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana; “crazy/beautiful” was directed by John Stockwell; written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfred; produced by Mary Jane Ufland, Harry J. Ufland and Rachel Pfeffer; and stars Jay Hernandez and Kirsten Dunst. Now playing countywide.

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