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Deep Crimson

Review by Lyall Bush
Posted 5 December 1997

  Directed by Arturo Ripstein

Starring Regina Orozco and Daniel Gimenez Cacho

Written by Paz Alicia Garciadiego

The tale of two criminal lovers fleeing the law is by now so familiar that it seems, like, certain folk songs, to have always been with us. It hasn't, of course. It's an almost pure 20th century distillate of pop romance, not too too far from those Lichtenstein paintings that look like hyper-magnified cartoons in which the tearful girl begs Brad (off-frame) for something unsayable that is at once stormy and monotonous and rapturous and sexual and dark and completely bone-headed. Films like Gun Crazy and Compulsion and later Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands and now Kiss or Kill are kind of permutations of that sugary bubble of pseudo apocalypse. Set that plea to a crime story and lay down a beatnik tom-tom – and voila. You have true, because utterly self-deluded, crime. In the interstices of these films' stories about soap-cleaned James Deans and their girls who live on cigarettes and produce corpses for a living the films come close to recommending the murder sprees as a new jazzy form of fooling with the middle classes. First, smoke reefer. Second, kill.

There's more, of course. The romance thrum can slip down a crack in the national psyche. Badlands is masterful in part because Sissy Spacek's awed, bored heroic voiceovers make a world where dumb romance can recombines with a hundred impulses and cravings swirling around ideas about fate and self-determination.

Crime to you and me is something to walk to the other side of the street to avoid. In good movies about crime it's a nearly unfathomable fascination. In Arturo Ripstein's disturbing, gauzily photographed new version of the "Lonely Hearts" murders of the 1940s the story of an overweight nurse and her Latin lover who pose as brother and sister in order to seduce emotionally vulnerable women is spellbindingly re-imagined. It's also emotionally harrowing, but that, in a sense, will be part of the pleasure anyone going to the film will be going for. For some reason unfathomable crime seems like a form of philosophical encounter. I can imagine Wittgenstein, lover of pork pies and cowboy movies that he was, finding the meaningless meaning of true crime utterly gripping.

It is. Deep Crimson's story is a true one and it made headlines a half-century ago. In 1969, Leonard Kastle first adapted it as the now notorious, Z-budget cult film, The Honeymoon Killers. Ripstein follows Kastle's basic story outline, but with interpretive variations. And he transfigures it from Kastle's exploitative world to something that feels like a much larger probe. The story is set now in dusty Mexican hamlets and it unfolds with the daze of all hot days and melodrama. Despite the patches of ugliness in the film Deep Crimson is defined by its glimpses into the insides of the two killer lovers, not by how much blood they produce. That gives Deep Crimson Badlands kind of ambitions: it becomes a sepia-tinted fable about the way a murderous streak emerges from a stew of movie fantasy, popular romance, sexual greed and narcissism.

The outsize nurse this time is a hangy-lipped woman named Coral (Regina Orozco) whose breath is sour and whose uniform is as unkempt and blood-smeared as a butcher's apron. Self-absorbed and addicted to over-baked romance, Coral prepares for work by lipsticking the initials of the matinee idol Charles Boyer on her breasts. At work she slips the hand of an elderly man in her care down her uniform. It's her own magic alphabet and she wants the old man to lay his hands on it and heal the way she believes it's healed her. Or that's one possible reason. (Another is an impossible labyrinthine route that Coral travels to believe that a wheelchair-bound man is transformed into Charles Boyer). In the evening, Coral shoos away her children, plunks down on her couch and makes herself over again, writing "missives" to her "Lonely Hearts" friend, Nicolas Estrella (Daniel Gimenez Cacho).

Nicolas is a pathological grifter who seduces women by believing his own lies – and with the aid of a hair piece and an affected Castillian Spanish he manages to feed his own rank Don Juan ambitions and earn his living. After seducing the women he steals their money. But it is Coral who turns out to have the killer instinct. On meeting Nicolas she falls, much more than he does, into what the director calls a "mad love," though that expression hardly describes the tawdry glue of sentiment and criminal self-absorption that comes to bind Coral to Nicholas (and he, eventually, to her).

Orozco and Cacho play their characters from far inside them, and much of the film's hypnotic effect comes as a direct result of the way they evoke their characters' malcontent impulsiveness. But as compelling as these two are, the story is made to furnish no direct answers about the nature of their crimes. Coral and Nicolas live inside an aura of indecipherability, and it is this condition that differentiates True Crime from fictional movies about serial crime like The Silence of the Lambs. The film is not without evidence, but what meaning Ripstein finds in the story is underground. Indeed, the story is his opportunity to dredge the soft bottom of human affairs where erotic attachment and homicidal impulses are co-eval. The closest we come to an answer about this true crime is Nicolas's swollen romantic outburst near the end: "We are accomplices," he tells Coral, "and nothing can tear us apart." That's awfully good. And telling. What teenager since the 1940s has not drawn imaginative breath on that same line?

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