It may be the Age Of Reason, but the peasants in a far-flung rural region of France are convinced they're being stalked by a supernatural monster. A famed warrior-naturalist and his Mohawk Iroquois sidekick come seeking the truth.
While shooting Citizen Kane, Orson Welles announced that the paraphernalia of moviemaking was the best train set a boy could ever have. Clearly Christophe Gans (Crying Freeman) shares this sense of awe at the possibilities. Lap dissolves, match cuts, slow motion, freeze frames, top shots, distortion, superimposition. Not since the New Wave has a French director used narrative devices with such gleeful self-regard.
It's a dizzyingly bravura attempt to reproduce the visual energy of a computer game, while attempting to remain true to the realities of pre-revolutionary France. But how to assess a film that is so ambitious yet so flawed, so original and yet so slavishly derivative?
By far its most fascinating aspects are its borrowings. Gans has rifled through the archives for ideas, right down to the furnishings in the Brotherhood's lair, which owe a huge debt to the castle trappings in Jean Cocteau's Beauty And The Beast. But there are also references to the noble savage, celebrated in both the philosophical writings of Rousseau and fiction like The Last Of The Mohicans. There are homages to the Spaghetti Western, the martial arts movie, anime quests like Princess Mononoke and the Gothic revelries of Tim Burton. And then, tucked in the margins, there's the whole Enlightenment debate about reason and religion.
Had Gans been able to rein in the stylistic excess, this might have been more compelling. That said, it's quirky enough to entertain and complex enough to challenge. But arthousers beware: this is more Crimson Rivers than Ridicule.
An undeniably handsome creation, but its excessive length and surplus of directorial flourishes merely exacerbate the emptiness of an initially promising plot.