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Vidocq
Directed by Pitof

Starring: Gérard Depardieu, Guillaume Canet, Inés Sastre, André Dussollier
Running Time: 1:40
Country: France
Year: 2001
Web: Official Site
Paris, 1830. Three notables are killed, struck by lightning. It seems that a mysterious "Alchemist" is responsible for these deaths. François Vidocq (Gérard Depardieu), a former cop turned detective, investigates. When the movie begins, Vidocq is fighting the Alchemist and dies. Etienne Boisset (Guillaume Canet), Vidocq's official biographer, arrives in Paris and decides to resume the investigation that leads him to Vidocq's footsteps.

Historically, Vidocq was a famous policeman and an ex-con whose memoirs have inspired many writers, including Balzac. The movie, however, is loosely based on the real character.

Pitof, a former film editor, became a special effects supervisor on several French blockbusters such as The City of Lost Children, Alien: Resurrection and Luc Besson's The Messenger. He is now the director of Vidocq, based on a screenplay by Jean-Christophe Grangé (Crimson Rivers).

This movie will undoubtedly write a new page of film history in the technical category. This is the first picture using a high definition digital camera (from Sony and Panavision)—the same model George Lucas used for Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. The result of this new technology was eagerly anticipated.

The first visible advantage resides in the large number of special effects. 1830's Paris, entirely recreated in digital, is particularly impressive. Except for a few average shots (especially when thunder strikes a man obviously standing in front a blue screen), most of the effects are stunning. Another asset is the dark, grainy and trendy photography generated in post-production. Finally, the depth of field is also spectacular.

Unfortunately, Pitof does too much. Every single shot is flashy. Special effects, camera movements, shot composition, sound effects, Matrix-like fights, and the superb costumes make everything a little too pompous.

Despite his efforts, the director doesn't impress with his inflated and tiring shots. The spectator is more overwhelmed than fascinated. With the great depth of field, Pitof uses and abuses (especially at the beginning: Vidocq is dead, Vidocq is dead…). It's too much.

Using depth of field in a general way in the aesthetic of cinema is an interesting point to me. Like the famous lens flare, sometimes created by light sources refracted through the lens (these spots due to the sun or car headlights for instance), the depth of field is a flaw showing the incapacity to faithfully reproduce human vision; a limitation that didn't exist before the invention of photography.

However, the lens flare, just like the blur, have won titles of nobility; they can be found today in cartoons and 3D animation, and it's easy to digitally add them in with post-production software.

Hence, the high depth of field the camera used in Vidocq suggests a different aesthetic approach, much closer to video and television. And it's probably that aspect that is disturbing in some shots, when everything is sharp, from the close-up to the church in the background, one has more of a televised rather than cinematic impression. Besides making the first assistant's job easier, this new approach requires a reconsideration of film aesthetic.

Back to Vidocq, the abundance of shots (and close-ups particularly) is tiring: there are 2300 shots— including 800 digitally modified in post-production—for a cost of more than 20 million euros.

Moreover, Pitof is more concerned with the visual aspect of his movie rather than characters and plot development. The story is set at an unusual time (1830, during the "Trois Glorieuses" revolution), the only originality in this screenplay. The whole thing is common, written as a long flashback, and the many twists don't avert the audience's boredom.

Sadly, most characters, including Vidocq, are inconsistent. Their psychological profile could fit into a thimble: the smart hero, the faithful but rough colleague, etc. Furthermore, Jean-Christophe Grangé chose to make Vidocq belong to the fantasy genre while it would probably have been better to stay on the edge. Consequently, the movie is not plausible and at times even laughable.

The ending is as failed as in his previous screenplay, Crimson Rivers. By looking for a final twist at any cost, he arrives at a far-fetched conclusion.

Some good points nonetheless. The actors do well (especially Depardieu, excellent as always, and André Dussolier is outstanding). The well-written dialogues don't sound as fake as in the previous French period piece Brotherhood of the Wolf.

As for the music, after Belphégor and Crimson Rivers, Bruno Coulais seems to have become the favorite composer for French big budget films. He is a kind of Jerry Goldsmith, looking at his latest overworked theme that borrows from Wojciech Kilar's Dracula. One magnanimously supposes that the score was written in a hurry to be so botched, especially when we remember that in the past, Coulais proved he could do far better. We can't complain however about the orchestrations and the efficiency of his work on Vidocq as it's a Hollywood trick to offer a technically pompous soundtrack to hide the lack of inspiration. I never would have thought I would see the composer of Himalaya and Microcosmos create a score as scandalously commercial as Dinosaur or Air Force One scores.

In conclusion, Vidocq will enter the Hall of Fame only for its technical innovations. It's a pity that with so many talented people, a huge budget and so much work, they were not able to produce something better.


  Laurent Ziliani

     French Film Reviews

     Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime,
       Francois Eugene Vidocq, A K Pr Distribution, 2003.
     French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present,
       Remi Fournier Lanzoni, Continuum Pub Group, 2002.
     French DVD Store

 



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