DVD review: VIDOCQ (2001)
Pursuing a cloaked mystery man in a mirrored mask through the decaying streets of 1830 Paris, extraordinary criminal-turned-sleuth Francois-Eugene Vidocq (Gerard Depardieu) finally corners his quarry but, during a violent struggle, falls to his death in a fiery pit. Investigating Vidocq’s death is young journalist (and would-be Vidocq biographer) Etienne Boisset (Guillaume Canet), who determines to continue the great detective’s incomplete investigations into the curious death-by-lightning of three Parisian businessmen. Assisted by Vidocq’s former detective-agency partner Nimier (Moussa Maaskri), and Vidocq’s courtesan mistress Preah (Ines Sastre), Boisset uncovers evidence linking the three murders to a sinister urban myth concerning “The Alchemist”: an hermetic scholar and ruthless killer on a quest for the elixir of life. But as Boisset’s investigation leads him closer to the diabolical Alchemist, the trail of corpses starts to mount…
Acclaimed visual effects designer Pitof (real name: Jean-Christophe Camar), famed for his work on several Jeunet-Caro collaborations, as well as Besson’s THE MESSENGER, LES VISITEURS and ASTERIX ET OBELIX CONTRE CESAR, has made a terrific directorial debut with VIDOCQ. It’s a barrage of fast cutting, wide-angle close-ups (transforming every face into a leering Hogarthian grotesque) and striking, painterly tableaux of a crepuscular 19th-Century Paris, cast into almost permanent shadow by glowering storm clouds. (Think Magritte’s “L’Empire des Lumieres”, mixed with the Symbolist eeriness of Gustave Moreau.)
There are borrowed elements, too, from Allain & Souvestre’s “Fantomas”, Powell’s PEEPING TOM, Welles’ CONFIDENTIAL REPORT/MR ARKADIN and Jeunet & Caro’s DELICATESSEN, to name-check just a few. (Marc Caro generously provided the character design sketches for his former FX wiz.) As if to prove his encyclopaedic eclecticism, Pitof even manages to throw in a visual quotation from Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE during a sunlit pursuit through a labyrinth of white linen bedsheets. Purists may bristle at the decision to score Vidocq’s punishing mano-y-mano in the Alchemist’s laboratory with brutal heavy metal chords, but the sudden intrusion of 20th century musical tropes into this alternate-reality period setting actually seems more apt than the similar use of Steel Grave at moments of heightened tension during Argento’s contemporary OPERA, oddly enough; it suggests that the Alchemist has the power to draw on demonic energies from the future itself against his nemesis, enhancing the supernatural threat. To be sure, it’s not a mixture that will appeal to everyone; Pitof’s camera never stops whirling and pirouetting, the editing is frenetic and the digital effects plentiful (if not always one hundred per cent convincing). I understand that it’s technically the first feature to employ HD 24p digital video cameras (albeit beaten to the screen by ATTACK OF THE CLONES), although the director is at pains to point out that some action scenes were actually shot with standard definition (SD) DV cameras.
Given my past remarks about the ugliness of most DV material, I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by the results quite this much. (True, those complaints have focused on SD DV features like 28 DAYS LATER; since we’re talking high-definition here, we’re kind of talking apples and oranges by comparing the two…but HD is the Sorbonne-educated Rhodes scholar of digital filmmaking, compared to the delinquent remedial layabout that is standard DV.) VIDOCQ has well and truly opened my eyes to the true potential of DV: the crisp photosurrealistic images Pitof has conjured here are truly gorgeous, wiping the floor (for my money) with any of the digitally-shot competition to date. Pitof’s deliberate exploitation of that “digitech” artifice is what gives VIDOCQ its unique visual texture: this 19th-Century Paris genuinely is a whole new cinematic world, and as Pitof’s camera swooped down into its chthonic streets and alleyways I had the impression of witnessing the first truly successful fusion of live-action and animation. As Eric Morecambe used to say, you can’t see the join. (I believe Todd has already mentioned the similarities with Baz Luhrman’s highly-stylized Paree of MOULIN ROUGE, but for me, VIDOCQ’s “more-real-than-real” digital composites far outshine ROUGE’s somewhat softer fantasy universe, excellent though it was…but this is probably a question of personal preference.)
Marvellous as Pitof’s film certainly is, the one criticism I would raise is that it does not quite do justice to the frankly astonishing real-life exploits of its eponymous hero. An adventurer and former criminal, Francois-Eugene Vidocq was (to quote the Reverend Antonio Hernandez) “the first modern police detective, the founder of the Surete of France, the creator of the criminal file system, fingerprinting, ballistics, crime scene security, forensic pathology and reconstruction, sting operations and plainclothes police work.” He also pioneered the use of police sketch artists to reconstruct the features of criminals from eyewitness testimony, and was himself a gifted practitioner of this technique. He was a soldier, a Holmesian master of disguise, a scientist - a true Renaissance Man. When scandal prompted him to step down as head of the Surete, he rechannelled his genius into his own private detection agency. Not only that, he was the inspiration for many of the most famous literary detectives from the most acclaimed writers in the world: Edgar Allan Poe’s C.Auguste Dupin of “Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Gaston Leroux’s Joseph Rouletabille, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, even, perhaps, Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-sporting resident of 221B Baker Street. He was apparently also the model for Hugo’s Jean Valjean (and the policeman who pursues him!), Balzac’s Vautran, and was spoken of highly by Herman Melville and Alexandre Dumas. His escapades have been filmed three times for the big screen (in 1922 and 1938 as VIDOCQ, and by Douglas Sirk in 1946 as A SCANDAL IN PARIS, the latter starring George Sanders), and twice for French TV (the 1967 series “Vidocq”, and the 1971 followup “Les Nouvelles Aventures de Vidocq”). That’s a daunting catalogue of achievements to attempt to put on screen, so I suppose it’s no wonder that a fair portion of the real Vidocq’s life history failed to make the final cut. (Much of the biographical material is dealt with cursorily via animated newspaper headlines during the film’s opening title sequence.)
French DVD distributors TF1 have furnished Pitof’s debut with an extremely handsome 2-disc special edition in region 2, with the feature itself (although not the special features on disc 2) generously provided with English subtitles. Disc 1 sports an (unsubtitled) commentary by Pitof and production designer Jean Rabasse, with the second disc providing a veritable embarras de richesse for the dedicated Vidocq fanatic: the usual “Making of”, interviews with Pitof, Jean-Christophe Grange, Guillaume Canet, Ines Sastre and storyboard artist Fabien Lacaf, Marc Caro’s character designs, trailers, storyboard-to-film comparisons and quite a bit more. (There is also, apparently, a Canadian DVD edition which apparently ports over most, if not all of these special features.)
And TF1’s packaging is beautiful.