Movie Review : Deep Crimson (1996)
* a suggestion from Larry Prater *
American movies have conquered the world. By that, I mean not only American movies themselves but their aesthetic. The frantic and spectacular way they're made. Mexican director Arturo Ripstein anachronistic gem Deep Crimson is a witness to how much moviemaking changed and became formatted over the last twenty years. It's poised, stylish, incredibly smart and unbearable to watch. It's great, but it's going to make you sit still, focus and make you work for your entertainment. What kind of movie dares doing that? Deep Crimson is a movie profoundly inspired by older American narratives like the work of James M. Cain but that walks to the beat of its own drum.
Nicolas Estrella (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) is a scam artist, living of lonely women he seduces. He wears a wig that makes him look like French actor Charles Boyer, which drives the ladies completely crazy. His life changes the day he meets a woman named Coral Fabre (Regina Orozco) who happens to be Boyer's biggest fan. Coral is an abusive single mother used to get what she wants by force. She's also pretty smart and figures out Nicolas' scam shortly into their relationship. That doesn't stop Coral, though. She is infatuated with him and want to become her accomplice. Together, they begin seeking lonely and vulnerable women to take advantage of. Their union will take Nicolas' fraudulent living further than anything he could've imagined.
The closest link this movie has to the world of the living is that Daniel Gimenez Cacho, the male lead, played in Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien and Pedro Almodovar's Mala Educacion. It might as well be a figment of my imagination otherwise. Deep Crimson is such an uncomfortable and alien experience because it's so far removed from the American moviemaking paradigm. The takes a long, the scenes are longer and the movie takes its sweet time at getting anywhere. Arturo Ripstein uses slow and minimal editing and prioritizes set like it was a filmed stage play. It's so bizarre because nobody films like that anymore and our brains got used to quick editing and blazing fast storytelling. That doesn't mean it's not an interesting movie, though, because Deep Crimson has many cool things to say.
The main theme of Deep Crimson is the fluid relationship between the real and the fake. For example, Coral abandons her children (her real life) in order to live her Charles Boyer fantasy with Nicolas that will turn her into a murderer. Their victims also desperately need a romantic narrative in order to cope with the loneliness and meaninglessness provoked by the original narratives of their lives. The first is caught in a loveless convenience wedding, the second is a religious zealot and the third victim is arguably Nicolas himself who sees a shot at redemption in the next woman, a pure-hearted lonely mother. The sets keep alternating between gorgeously romantic and hopelessly bleak during that last scamming sequence. The boundary between the real and the fake is symbolized by Nicolas' wig. He becomes a different human being depending on whether its on or off. The cool and confident Charles Boyer wannabe becomes a violent and pathetic asshole whenever the wig comes off. I thought it was really cool symbolism.
So, what is Deep Crimson trying to tell us? The boundaries between meaningfulness and meaninglessness are arbitrary. They're based on individual judgement. Your life can be a romantic oasis to yourself and appear pathetic to someone who doesn't know you. It's not a happy movie at all, but it makes its point in a nuanced and compelling way. I would call it noir, but I believe there's a higher, philosophical calling to it. It's an existential, borderline nihilistic movie that is halfway between noir and psychological horror. It definitely is a forgotten treasure that was shot in a forgotten filmmaking tradition. Deep Crimson is challenging, but also super rewarding. Don't pass on an opportunity to watch it.