• Olivier Marchal stars in ‘The Crimson Rivers’. (SBS)
Grim and gruesome ritual murders in rural France? Detectives Pierre and Camille are on the (creepy) case.
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26 Sep 2019 - 9:57 AM  UPDATED 26 Sep 2019 - 9:57 AM

Murder is a terrible crime… and yet somehow, when it’s committed as part of a ritual, it’s even worse. There’s something truly creepy about a killing that’s done for reasons more sinister than mere greed or passion – and for the detectives of The Crimson Rivers, solving ritual crimes is what they do best.

If you thought turning movies into television was something only the US did, The Crimson Rivers is here to let you know the French can do it just as well. It’s based on a best-selling novel by Jean-Christophe Grangé, who created this series, and which was also the basis for a 2000 film (and sequel) starring Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel. While this is technically a follow-up to those movies, you don’t need to know anything about them or the novel to get the most out of this.

The series revolves around two detectives assigned to the Central Office against violent crime (OCCS), a taskforce charged with investigating crimes too extreme for France’s rural police. Pierre Niémans (Olivier Marchal, who’s been a feature of French police dramas for close to two decades now) is an old-school cop who focuses on results. He’s also been teaching those coming up behind him his way of upholding the law, and new partner Camille Delauney (Erika Sainte) is a former student of his. But working together is a very different dynamic than the teacher-student one, and it takes them some time to find their feet as a crime-solving team.

Their work dynamic is all business. He’s slow and steady, with a side order of cynicism earned from decades of seeing the worst in people; she’s a bit of a hothead willing to push the boundaries if that’s what it takes to get the job done. But outside work – and yes, sometimes a little too close to work as well – there’s a level of sexual tension in this series you could cut with a (hopefully not used in a murder) knife. As the saying goes, they work hard, they play hard… though in one case, sleeping with a witness perhaps isn’t the wisest move.

In their first case (“The Last Hunt”), German fox hunters on the French side of the border (fox hunting is allowed in France, not Germany), stumble across the corpse of Count Jurgen von Geyersberg, heir to a billion-dollar fortune. If his wealth and status alone weren’t enough to make this a major case, he was also found decapitated, disembowelled and with an oak branch in his mouth.

If his murder is more than a one-off – and the ritualistic angle seems to make that a certainty, no matter what the unhelpful local police have to say – then Jurgen’s snooty sister Laura (Nora von Waldstätten) is the obvious next target. But the case, which rapidly takes in issues such as animal cruelty and the toxic nature of inherited wealth, has a few more twists up its sleeve… and a few more bodies to turn up.

Something that puts The Crimson Rivers ahead of the murder-mystery pack is that each case is spread over two episodes. It’s a smart way to explore this kind of crime, and not just because it means there’s a cliffhanger that makes watching the next episode impossible to resist; the longer running time gives the cases time to unfold, the twists and turns more room to play out, and the characters more space to breathe.

That’s important because the atmosphere of the crimes is just as important as the whodunnit angle. The ritualistic angle gives each case a haunting, unsettling element that a lot of procedurals don’t have time to explore. The Crimson Rivers takes the time to establish a mood, as well as dig down into the social issues stirred up by each case. Ritualistic murders really don’t mean much unless a series can actually explore the world in which they’re taking place.

The setting is also a big part of this series’ mood. Rural France gives an almost fairytale-like backdrop to these brutal crimes, a series of picture-book locations that are constantly on the verge of turning brooding and ominous. Time and again Pierre and Camille find themselves in small, close-knit communities where things might have gone sour – where the old ways of doing things have led the locals down a dark path.

Other cases in season 1 involve the death of a fresco restorer in Alsace’s wine-growing region (was the fresco’s collapse an accident or a murder?), the discovery of a child’s severed hand in the middle of a hunt for a rifle-toting serial killer, and the murder of a monk that just might involve a Satanic sect. That’s a lot of crime for our duo to investigate, and it doesn’t stop there; a second season screened in France earlier this year.

Season 1 of The Crimson Rivers is now streaming at SBS On Demand:

Follow the author here: Twitter @morrbeat

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