Dir: Pitof. France. 100 mins.
Last season it was Brotherhood Of The Wolf, a prototype for a new kind of European popular cinema, that attempted to makeover a French costume drama with the idiomatic layering of genre set-pieces (martial arts action movie, monster movie, etc.). This season we get Vidocq, a go-for-baroque hi-tech suspense costume piece starring Gerard Depardieu and directed by a French F-X wizard who goes by the name of Pitof.
Vidocq is worth a few minutes attention as the first theatrical motion picture to be entirely shot using a hi-definition digital camera that creates a digitally-conceived recreation of 19th-century Paris. Visually it is an often extraordinary performance, but, as was the case with Brotherhood Of The Wolf, the pictorial dynamics are quickly sapped by the clunky scripting, clotheshorse acting and videogame direction. For while Vidocq may be a revolution in cinema technology, it is a regression in good clean movie storytelling. The film has opened well but unspectacularly in France, attracting 740,000 admissions in its first five days and far behind the initial results of Brotherhood. It suggests that the Law of Diminishing Returns may already be at work on this wannabe genre of globalised filmmaking.
Basically, Vidocq is little more than a candle-and-lamplit serial killer opus played out with top hats, muttonchops and flintlock pistols, as if Seven or Silence Of The Lambs had been superimposed on a production of Les Miserables.
While revolution rumbles in the lower depths of the capital, Paris is prey to a particularly demonic serial killer known as the Alchemist, a capped, hooded figure who wears a mirror mask and looks like a French forebear of Darth Vader. Indeed, the opening subterranean battle between the Alchemist and the detective waged over a flaming pit looks like a riff on Star Wars, with black metal bars instead of light-sabres.
After this inauspicious opening - during which Vidocq is left presumably dead - the story proceeds in flashbacks, with Vidocq's would-be young biographer (Guillaume Canet) arriving unannounced from the sticks, determined to investigate his subject's demise and unmask the Alchemist. What he uncovers is an increasingly murky farrago of bizarre murders, kidnapped young virgins, opium dens and a diabolical quest for eternal youth. This all leads to a final twist so off-the-wall that it makes nonsense of everything that has preceded it.
But what is particularly unforgivable about the script (by Jean-Christophe Grange, the bestselling author of the macabre mystery novel, The Crimson Rivers, which was disastrously filmed by Mathieu Kassovitz) is that it does virtually nothing with its eponymous hero. Nor does Depardieu help matters with another of his automatic-pilot performances.
A legend in his own time, the historical Eugene Francois Vidocq was an escaped convict who became a police spy, then the first head of the French criminal investigations bureau, the Surete. A ground-breaking criminologist who used his first-hand knowledge of the underworld, he was a master of disguise, introduced the science of ballistics into police work, made the first plaster-of-paris casts of footprints and founded the first modern private detective agency. (He also inspired such writers as Balzac, Hugo, Conan Doyle and Poe and was the hero of several French features and a couple of popular TV miniseries during the 1960s and 1970s). Unfortunately very little of Vidocq's real-life credentials matter in the film, unless as incidental information or throwaway dialogue.
The direction by Pitof (whose FX credits include Alien Resurrection and Luc Besson's Joan Of Arc) basically consists of programming the visual and aural bombast. The actors, often filmed in unflatteringly extreme close-ups, are left to their own devices. In addition to Depardieu and Canet, the casualties include such fine players as Andre Dussollier, Edith Scob and Isabelle Renauld.
Prod cos: RF2K - StudioCanal - TF1 Films Production
Int'l dist: UGC International
Exec prods: Dominique Farrugia, Olivier Granier
Scr: Jean-Christophe Grange
Cinematography: Jean-Pierre Sauvaire
Ed: Thierry Hoss
Prod des: Jean Rabasse
Mus: Bruno Coulais
Main cast: Gerard Depardieu, Guillaume Canet, Ines Sastre, Moussa Maaskri, Andre Dussollier, Edith Scob, Isabelle Renauld