Thursday, August 9, 2012

Thursday Review: Vidocq (2001)

    In which we learn that video will never, ever replace film...

    As I was sitting there watching Vidocq, a thought occurred to me: has there ever been a movie more sabotaged by its own director? We’ve had poorly-directed films before of course, but I can’t for the life of me think of another movie so severely hampered by its direction. Every other element of the film is fine - a respectable script, a capable cast, some breathtaking costumes and production design and impressive effects. Most every aspect of the film is top-notch… and all of it wasted through some truly awful directorial choices, courtesy of first-time director Pitof.

    A lot of the problem is the “film” was shot entirely on digital video. So no matter how impressive the scenery, it’s never going to look like anything other than a BBC miniseries from the 1970’s. Compounding matters even further is Pitof’s decision to film everything with a wide-angel lens, presumably to make up for the lack of motion blur in video. But even without its handicaps the film would be a mess visually. A former effects artist, Pitof falls into the trap of trying to make everything look “cool” - there are far too many extreme close-ups, nonsensical flash cutaways and jump cuts throughout, with no real regard for any sort of coherent storytelling. A shame, as the ingredients of the
 film are quite good on their own…

    Vidocq proposes a story where the legendary French detective * has been murdered. Eager to solve the crime, a young journalist by the name of Etienne travels Paris in a hunt for Vidocq’s killer: a mysterious figure known only as the Alchemist, who has a nifty mirrored mask and spooky cloak. The film takes the Citizen Kane route by having Etienne interview several of Vidocq’s acquaintances, who via flashback fill us in on the story we’ve missed. The film crafts a rather engaging supernatural mystery, filled with nice touches like a murder by lightning strikes and gunpowder-laced suits.

    Gerard Depardieu plays Vidocq, who we only see in flashbacks, but still gets plenty of meaty scenes. His portrayal gets all the right beats in, providing a hero that is equally menacing and driven in his pursuit of the truth. Guillaume Canet doesn’t fare quite as well, as his Ettiene comes off as far too pouty and naïve (there’s also a last-minute twist to his character that comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t make much sense in the contextr of the rest of the film).

    The effects look cheap when viewed today, but are still quite effective despite being dated - the Alchemist has various powers, and the way he/she swoops around in the fight scenes is pretty impressive. Equally impressive are the costumes and set design, which perfectly capture the atmosphere required of a period adventure film. Pitof deserves some commendation for at least assembling the elements of a good film.

    But the question remains: is this a good film or not? I still haven’t decided - Pitof’s abrasive visual style makes the film hard to sit through at times, but the other elements of the film hold your attention; it’s never boring, at the very least. I honestly don’t know if I could say whether the movie’s any good or not, but it’s certainly an interesting lesson on how important the role of a director truly is

    Pitof is currently serving some well-deserved time in director jail after unleashing the Halle Berry Catwoman on the world.

    * Often considered the world’s first private detective, Eugene Francois Vidocq pioneered many practices still in place today in the field of criminology. A former criminal himself, Vidocq served as the inspiration for characters as varied as Sherlock Holmes and Jean Valjean. 

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