The marvellously named Oliver Megaton’s 2002 adaptation of Maurice G. Dantec’s prize-winning novel treads a fine line between Euro-pudding and halfway decent thriller. It’s a schizophrenic viewing experience, riddled with narrative and aesthetic conflicts, but the longer it goes on (the film is just short of two hours) the more compelling its fluctuations become. The fact that it veers so close to being an absolute train-wreck is almost a point in its favour.
Let’s get the synopsis out of the way. 12-year old Alice (Alexandra Negrao) wanders into a police station in Paris and asks to speak to Anita (Asia Argento), an inspector who finds herself on shaky ground when she believes Alice’s story of her mother, Eva Christensen (Frances Barber), as a murderer. Although Alice presents Anita with a DVD depicting a vicious scene of torture and death, Anita’s superior warns her off the case implying that the DVD could easily have been staged and referring to Eva as “untouchable”. Nonetheless, Anita starts poking around. There are no leads and Eva’s lawyer materializes faster than you can say “harassment”.
So far, so procedural. A young, vulnerable witness; a difficult to corroborate allegation; an inexperienced cop going out on a limb. The first twenty minutes pretty much play out in expected fashion.
Then Eva turns up, demanding Alice be released back into her care. She brings hired goons Koestler (Andrew Tiernan) and Travis (Johan Leysen) along with her; these squabbling incompetents give chase when Alice legs it from the police station. She evades them by hiding in the back of a car owned by Hugo (Jean-Marc Barr), a hitman on his way to meet his enigmatic handler Vitali (Vernon Dobtcheff).
Hugo is haunted by his accidental killing of a child in a war zone several years previously, and helps Alice out of a sense of expiation. Alice wants to go to Portugal to find her father, long suspected dead in a boating accident but very much alive and well (more than a hint of giallo plotting here). Eva and her well-connected fixer Colonel Vondt (Carlo Brandt) figure Portugal as Alice’s immediate destination, and set off to intercept her. Meanwhile, Anita is given the opportunity to work with the Portugese authorities and track the girl down.
So: we’ve gone from determined cop vs suspected killer procedural, to cross-Europe chase thriller. Throw in the fact that Hugo and Alice bond en route and it all gets very ‘Leon’-revisited.
And indeed if Megaton (arguably the only director who sounds like a Transformer) had focused solely on the Hugo/Alice relationship – which almost the film’s mid section – you could swiftly write off ‘The Red Siren’ as a ‘Leon’ rip-off, give a nod to Barr’s convincing turn as a professional killer, tip the hat to a good understated performance from Negrao, and move on.
But Megaton flits between so many discontiguous elements, often losing focus, that what could have been a taut if derivate little thriller instead emerges as an increasingly bloated and frequently bonkers piece of work. A whole backstory about Hugo’s association with Vitali and the nature of Vitali’s “organization” hovers in the wings, its shadow touching every scene Vitali’s in but with nothing ever explored, explained or revealed. Likewise the relationship between Eva and Vondt: there are heavy insinuations of voyeurism, sadism, power games and sexual tension, but Megaton doesn’t go anywhere with it. Eva herself is a pantomime villain: we’re told she owns two hundred companies and likes filming orgies and murders, but her psychopathology remains as unexplored as anything relating to Vitali. It doesn’t help either that the usually dependable Frances Barber plays her as a cross between Cruella de Ville and the Marquis de Sade in drag.
Tiernan and Leysen’s characterizations are so clichéd, they make your average Guy Ritchie cockney crim look positively Shakespearean. Dobtcheff delivers his dialogue so portentously you’d think he was doing Strindberg, while Brandt seems to be treating the whole enterprise as an audition for Bond villain duties. Barr and Negrao, as noted earlier, do sterling work, while Argento tries heroically to imbue a nothing role with steely determination but just ends up looking miserable for most of the time. Only the scenes in which Anita repeatedly deflates the ego of the lascivious Portugese cop she’s partnered with have any zing to them.
The decision to shoot the production in English was misjudged: with the cast variously hailing from Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland, England and Portugal, the accents are all over the place and individual facility with the English language is variable at best. The dialogue smacks of losing quite a lot in translation and there are some howlingly clunky lines.
Aesthetically, stunning widescreen landscapes sit check by jowl with blandly anonymous interiors. Low key character moments are swamped by big action scenes, most notably an extended and brilliantly edited hotel shoot-out. The sense of conflict that I mentioned at the start of this review is omnipresent; the film often seems to be pulling against itself. That it doesn’t entirely derail and go up in flames is an achievement of itself.
Ultimately, ‘The Red Siren’ is an unfocused and deeply flawed film. It’s also entertaining (mostly for the wrong reasons) and I defy anyone to watch the climatic scene where Eva, gun in hand, chases her daughter across a beach yelling “Alice! Alice!” without this coming unbidden to mind: