INSPO: Crimson Rivers

INSPO is a series of posts about non-horror topics that could nonetheless be used as inspiration for a horror game. The rest of the series can be found here.

Based on a 1998 French crime novel by Jean-Christophe Grangé,the Rivières Pourpres or Crimson Rivers franchise offers us an interesting snapshot of French genre film-making as well as the forms in which it makes it is allowed to make its way out of France and into English-speaking homes. In order to understand how and why this series exists, it is first necessary to know a bit about the market for French film.

French situation has a reputation for being a lot artier than the films produced in either the US or the UK. While a lot of that is down to the ongoing legacy of the French New Wave and how it inspired the American new wave whose collapse in the late 1970s laid the foundation for the corporate hell-scape that is contemporary Hollywood, a lot of it is down to the fact that the backbone of the French film industry is made up of smaller dramas and comedies rather than billion-dollar franchises. The reason for this is that French cinemas and TV stations are legally obliged to carry a certain percentage of French-made films and so the French film industry has been forced to actively maintain an audience for low-budget films and it does this by producing a steady stream of well-written, well-acted, and well-shot dramas and comedies that regularly fill cinemas and draw decent ratings but rarely travel beyond the borders of French-speaking Europe.

There is no denying the artistic and economic successes of this model but it is not without its detractors and the late 1990s in particular saw the emergence of a group of directors intent upon pushing-back the boundaries of what was expected of French cinema. In some cases, this involved challenging the insipient bourgeois whiteness of French cultural institutions, and in others it involved making greater use of genre elements and trying to produce films that could be viewed outside of France. Looking back on this period, its most enduring successes include the horror films of the New French Extremity but there were also a number of intriguing thrillers including Matthieu Kassovitz’s adaptation of Jean-Christophe Grangé’s Les Rivières Pourpres.

Les Rivieres Pourpres was made five years after La Haine and there is not only ta palpable swagger to the direction but also a degree of budgetary largesse and some real star quality in the acting. The film’s plot is built around a pair of classic Hollywood-style converging plotlines.

The first involves legendary detective Pierre Niemans (played with typically alien inscrutability by a wonderful Jean Reno) being called to a remote and mountainous region of France to investigate a mutilated body found suspended from a rock face. The body turns out to be that of a librarian employed by a local university with a reputation for training France’s social and political elite. After gaining access to the librarian’s rooms, Niemans comes across a series of clues that lead him to another mutilated corpse. The killer, it turns out, wants Niemans to follow a trail.

The second plot-line involves junior detective Max Kerkerian (played with real wit and energetic glee by the great Vincent Cassel) who is still settling into his first rural posting. Assisted by a pair of squabbling rural cops, Kerkerian is asked to investigate both a desecrated grave and the theftless burglary of a local school. After a silly but nonetheless entertaining punch-up with some local skinheads (inserted into the film for no other reason than because Cassel happened to be taking kick-boxing classes) Kerkerian realises the link between the desecrated grave and some stolen school records is a small girl who reportedly died in a road traffic accident twenty years earlier. Having been in the graveyard on the night of the desecration, the skinheads are only able to steer Kerkerian towards a white Lada that turns out to have been owned by the person whose body Niemans just happens to have stumbled upon.

Niemans claims that his murderer is inviting the police to follow a trail. This trail turns out to have been designed to reveal the existence of a selective breeding programme operated by the local university. With roots dating back to the German occupation, the university serves as a matchmaker for its student body; placing promising male students at the same study table as promising female students in the hope that they’ll marry and have kids. While this selective breeding programme has produced brilliant scientists and successful politicians, its somewhat limited genepool has resulted in the emergence of a slew of hereditary diseases that the university is now trying to eradicate by selectively cross-breeding brilliant university students with physically-vigorous mountain-dwelling locals.

Rivieres Pourpres is a fantastic little thriller whose critical examination of powerful institutions tainted by a country’s historic ties to Nazism recalls The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. However, what really caught my eye was the fact that while the film alludes to a sinister, decades-old conspiracy with a tendency to occasionally spit-out dead bodies and ruined lives, there’s no real villain to the piece other than the university itself. Sure… there is a literal killer but the film makes it clear that they are merely the victim of French institutions that have been allowed to operate with complete impunity for far too long. While the franchise has assumed a number of different forms over the years, this vision of social institutions as sites of moral and psychological corruption unites the series and elevates it above the majority of police procedurals.

Rivieres Pourpres was not only a huge domestic success, it also reached an audience outside of French-speaking Europe and so it was necessary to produce a sequel. However, with both Kassovitz and Cassel having moved on to bigger and better things, the production company set about building an entirely new film around Jean Reno.

Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse opens with Niemans called in to investigate a monastery where a novice monk attempted to attach a crucifix to a wall only for the wall to begin oozing blood. Using the latest in scientific instrumentation, Niemans discovers a dead body sealed up in the monastery wall.

The film’s second plot-line involves a local police detective named Reda (the usually excellent Benoit Magimel struggles in an under-written part and spends the entire film trying to fill Cassel’s empty boots)  returning from a failed undercover operation only to accidentally run over a man who looks just like Jesus. After escorting the man to hospital and trying to work out his identity, Reda is confronted by a man who is dressed as a monk and trying to unplug Jesus’ life-support systems. At this point, Reda runs into his former teacher Niemans and the pair immediately suspect that they might be working the same case.

Much like the original Crimson Rivers, Crimson Rivers 2 invokes the corruption of French institutions and the idea that these institutions might have been irreversibly tainted by the Nazi occupation. However, while the original Crimson Rivers spends its time creeping about in the basement of French Universities and slowly assembles a forensic critique of French institutions, Crimson Rivers 2 was written by Nikita director Jean-Luc Besson. Though undeniably one of the most successful and influential French directors of the last forty years, Besson is a visual thinker and so all of his scripts feel like they with a series of brilliant images only for things like character and plot to be added afterwards as a means of stringing the images together. Given this approach, it is not surprising that the film never quite attains the sophistication of the first film’s social criticism. This being said, rather than trying and failing to critique the fabric of French institutions, Crimson Rivers 2 offers us something a little different: A visual deconstruction of the cultural symbolism surrounding the Maginot line.

The Maginot Line is a network of trenches and fortifications built by the French state in the aftermath of World War I. The assumption was that any future invasion from Germany would involve a replay of World War I-era trench warfare and so the French state built a load of hyper-fortified trenches in the hope of fending off a future invasion. However, by the time Germany did get round to trying to re-invade France, elements of the French establishment saw in German fascism not only a counter-balance to British imperial power but also a means of ensuring that they would never again be ruled by a Jewish socialist like Leon Blum. Under-equipped and under-motivated, the French military barely resisted German invasion and so the Maginot line served less as a barrier to German aggression and more of a series of veins through which the Nazi infection might reach to French ruling class.

Crimson Rivers 2 plays around with this imagery by suggesting a degree of complicity between the Catholic Church and the German far-right. While the nature of this complicity is never examined in much depth, it is used to create such amazing images as a load of sinister Germanic monks trying to assassinate Jesus while a former Nazi makes himself at home in a network of French fortifications. Another interesting thing to arise from the film’s sheer lack of substance is that while the former Nazi is presented as some kind of religious cultist, it is never completely clear what he wants other than a dusty old book. This struck me as quite an interesting take as the thing about cults and conspiracies is that, like all institutions, they obey logics of their own and so their ultimate purpose is always less interesting than the fact that they exist at all. Indeed, if a load of degenerate billionaires were meeting in caves and donning robes in order to sacrifice children to elder deities in order to lower inflation, this would not make them any less sinister than if their sacrifices were trying to bring about the end of the world. Though nowhere near as great as the original, Crimson Rivers 2 is a fun little thriller with a similar vibe to The Crow that is filled with iconic images and is a great source of inspiration for anyone looking to run pulpier horror or urban fantasy-style RPGs.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Crimson Rivers 2 was not a success. With only Reno returning, the whole project played out pretty much like every other straight-to-DVD sequel of a moderately successful film. The first Crimson Rivers was a film less interested in its characters than it was in presenting certain ideas about the world and while moving from a literary form of engagement to something more visually impactful was interesting, I think that the shift in tone combined with the fact that Reno’s Niemans was the only real point of connection between the two films meant that the sequel failed to re-capture the audience that had made the first film a success. At this point, the IP went dormant for the best part of two decades only to resurface as a French TV series.

Made with French, German, and Belgian money, The Crimson Rivers TV series premiered on French-Language Swiss TV before finding an audience in France and more recently in the UK. Created by Jean-Christophe Grange, the series marks a return to the forensically vibe-heavy and character-like anti-institutionalism of the original film. While the films are never referenced in the series, they all share a primary protagonist in the form of Commissaire Pierre Niemans, this time played by a spectacularly grumpy Olivier Marchal (who is himself a Cesar-nominated film director as well as the creator of the flamboyantly grimdark French TV procedural Braquo).

As in the original films, Niemans is something of a weird character in that he is positioned as both a celebrated genius investigator who taught at the French police academy and trained a generation of detectives, and an anti-social weirdo so unaccommodating that the French judiciary wind up setting up a whole new agency just to keep him in the field. Indeed, one of the recurring jokes in the series is that while Niemans’ Central Office Against Crimes of Blood is an agency comparable in stature to the French Judicial Police, it’s basically just him and his former student Camille Delaunay, who is endowed with Elfin grace and oceans of repressed anger by Erika Sainte.

The Crimson Rivers has a slightly unusual structure in so far as its episodes are all comprised of self-contained stories told as two hour-long episodes of TV. This is not a structure I’ve encountered before but, for the most part, it seems to work pretty well as it allows both for more complex plots and for slower, more atmospheric pacing. Indeed, the slower pace is absolutely central to the power of The Crimson Rivers as the series is both beautifully shot and set in some genuinely hideous places.

The Crimson Rivers is set in a France where things like government and community are barely present. In their place we have these huge, often ancient institutions that squat in a variety of castles and sprawling modernist horrors where they pump evil out into the community like a load of toxic waste barrels dumped in a river. The first episode sets the tone by having Niemans and Delaunay travel to the German border to investigate a murder that took place on the land of some aristocrats whose estates span the two countries. While the killer’s motives and methods are suitably gothic for an opening episode, the real message here is the sense of moral decadence that comes from giving people limitless resources and zero accountability.

This vision of social institutions as unaccountable vampires is also evident in the episodes dealing with a body that turns up on the land of a religious community that produce a lot of wine. With money, jobs, and regional prestige at stake, Niemans is ordered to conduct the investigation at arm’s length but the deeper he and Delaunay dig, the more they realise that the group’s odd beliefs have very real consequences that people have simply never bothered investigating because they produce a lot of wine.

From there, the detectives move to investigating a murder that took place near what we in the UK might call an old-fashioned borstal; a brutal prison-like school that serves as a dumping ground for kids who are deemed too troublesome for mainstream education. Crimson Rivers, presents this school as a vast concrete tower block built in the middle of the French countryside and populated with kids whose only encounters with adults are characterised by rage and inappropriate sexuality. At first, I assumed the building must be a tower block or maybe a shopping centre but it turns out to be an actual working school, thereby driving home the critique.

One of the disappointing things about Crimson Rivers is that, as the series progresses, you can sense the writers struggling either to avoid repeating themselves or to find new targets. French procedural TV has spent the last ten years on a real anti-institutional tear and one of the challenges facing a series like The Crimson Rivers was not stumbling into the hunting ground of better-known series like Engrenages (or Spiral as it’s known in the UK). The Crimson Rivers franchise has always had a gothic edge that is not really compatible with the social realism of procedurals like The Wire and so there is a tangible sense of the series starting to run out of ideas as it enters its third series. This being said, second-series episodes such as the one dealing with the degenerate French nobility, the sinister side of French rural communities and the (frankly brilliant) episode dealing with the lawless French refugee and immigration camps are so pointed and so brave that you cannot imagine a British TV series making anything even remotely comparable.

When the wheels do start coming off The Crimson Rivers, they try to shift away from institutional critiques and towards more character-driven pieces. In the case of Delaunay, this works reasonably well as we are told about the child she had adopted and then said child turns up and serves as a B-plot in a critique-heavy episode. Far less effective are the episodes delving into Niemans’ past as the character has always been an assortment of tropes held together by nothing more than the charisma of first Reno and then Marchal. Try to suggest some traumatic past or some secret corruption and the entire thing falls apart as Niemans is a character with no real psychological substance. The idea of the super-cop who is both an unmanageable wild-card and one of the pillars of French police education is already a bit of a stretch, add to that the idea that he was also corrupt and working with gangsters and it just becomes silly.

When The Crimson Rivers series works, it works beautifully in so far as it manages to be both a series of exciting thrillers and a really thoughtful piece of social criticism. It achieves this by systematically downplaying the agency of the people who do the actual killings and working incredibly hard to present them as products of institutions that are far more corrupt and socially toxic than a few dead bodies dumped in the French countryside.

The reason I love this approach is that it provides a really clear model of how to do investigative story-telling when the prime malign mover is not actually human. People often refer to leftist anti-Semitism as the socialism of fools because it constitutes a failure mode when trying to think about social forces and institutional influence. We are encouraged to think of criminality in terms of individual transgression because the legal system is set up to punish people rather than the forces that placed them in the position where they felt obliged to commit a crime. One of the ways in which leftist thought diverges from ‘common sense’ is that it tries to explain bad things not in terms of the people who pulled the trigger or pushed the button but rather in terms of the social forces that brought them to that point. Leftist anti-Semitism is a failure mode of leftist thought because some people learn about material analysis and structural criticism and rather than accepting that social ills are caused by systemic forces, they seek to place the blame on groups of people like Jews or Lizard people, or the Bilderberg group or whatever.  Forces like capitalism and institutional racism are inhuman in so far as they sit above humanity but act through us. While I would not be as crass and reductive to say that capitalism is Cthulhu, I think that cosmic horror is the only logical response to becoming aware of the ways in which forces like capitalism and institutional racism shape our world and sculpt out minds. Crimson Rivers is not a supernatural series, but there are real similarities between the way that Lovecraftian entities whisper in the ears of their cultists and the way that certain institution whisper in the ears of already fragile people. As such, I think that Crimson Rivers provides a really interesting template for not only doing real cosmic horror in an RPG context, but also cosmic horror that is unequivocally leftist.

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