Arturo Ripstein confirms his status as the most accomplished contempo Mexican filmmaker with “Deep Crimson,” a unique love story with abundant touches of black humor that ranks as one of his finest achievements. After its world premiere at Venice, pic is already scheduled to a busy fest tour that includes Toronto and San Sebastian. It should also be much in demand on the arthouse circuit due to its top-notch quality and Ripstein’s reputation.
Set in 1949 in the northern Mexican state of Sonora and based on the infamous “Lonely Hearts” murder case, which also inspired Leonard Kastle’s cult film “The Honeymoon Killers,” plot revolves around the unlikely couple formed by Nicolas Estrella (Daniel Gimenez-Cacho) and Coral Fabre (Regina Orozco).
Feigning to be a Spanish gentleman, he is in fact a gigolo gone to seed who suffers from migraines and a pathological fixation with his baldness, which he covers with a toupee. She is a grossly over weight nurse with foul breath, whose desperate need for love moves her to abandon her children and impose herself on Nicolas. She eventually joins him in a scam to exploit old and lonely widows and spinsters, posing as his sister.
But their plan goes awry. Coral can’t stand to watch her lover in the arms of other women, and starts murdering the intended victims in fits of jealousy. The couple drive around the desolate roads of Sonora, testing their relationship at every stop. When Nicolas goes ballistic after accidentally ruining his hairpiece, Coral shows her devotion, cutting her own hair to make him a replacement. Finally, meeting the attractive young widow Rebeca (Veronica Merchant) throws the couple out of balance, and the mutual dependency takes its emotional toll.
Although the storyline is similar to the one in Kastle’s film, Ripstein carries it to his own personal turf. Aided by the dry, mordant wit of the script by Paz Alicia Garciadiego, the director’s longtime collaborator and companion, pic is another take on the troubled dynamics of a love relationship, echoing a previous effort like “Mentiras piadosas” (White Lies). But there is a change of tone. Instead of the reigning gloom and doom of “La reina de la noche” (Queen of the Night), Ripstein goes for a mixed bag of pathos and dark humor, making the film funny, morbid and moving at the same time. That strategy is well exemplified by the brilliant sequence in which Coral, reciting the Lord’s prayer, interrupts the wedding night between Nicolas and pious widow Irene Gallardo (famed Spanish thesp Marisa Paredes) at the moment they kiss.
Ripstein’s mise en scene is also lighter, featuring shorter one-take sequences done with exemplary precision, while switching his usual closed and nocturnal settings to wide open spaces under broad daylight.
Performances are outstanding. Gimenez-Cacho proves to be Mexico’s leading young actor with this nuanced portrayal of a loser torn between guilty feelings and overpowering rancor. And Orozco substitutes the openly comic persona that made her a very funny character actress with a low-key rendering of a frustrated woman who’s prone to sudden acts of violence whenever she feels rejected. The able supporting cast doesn’t hit a false note.
The efforts of lenser Guillermo Granillo and composer David Mansfield are noteworthy as well, contributing to the pic’s unity of style and tone.