Vidocq (aka Dark Portals, 2001) Movie Review

The French film “Vidocq” is an interesting failure. It is breathtaking in its visuals, has an interesting narrative, but its execution is so erratic that I am left to wonder if one-name director Pitof is auditioning to direct a Nine Inch Nails music video instead of trying to make a coherent film. The movie, a fantasy/mystery about Vidocq, a sort of French version of Sherlock Holmes, is so insanely “jacked up” in its camerawork that you wonder if everyone involved in the production is taking speed.

“Vidocq” opens with the death of the titular character (played by Gerard Depardieu) at the hands of the Alchemist, a killer who wears a mirror mask that is believed to “suck the souls of his victims” because, we later learn, the Alchemist believes it gives him the power of eternal youth. After Vidocq’s death (which takes place in the first 5 minutes) young Etienne (Guillaume Canet) arrives in town, claiming to be Vidocq’s official biographer. Etienne is a journalist and is intent on finding Vidocq’s killer and getting revenge for the master detective, thus finalizing Vidocq’s biography. Along the way, Italian supermodel Ines Sastre shows up in Asian makeup and a lot of very hygiene-free French people run around trash-strewn alleyways and streets flashing yellow teeth and other bodyparts. It’s early 19th century France and it ain’t pretty.

“Vidocq” is a combination detective mystery ala Sherlock Holmes, something of a quick lesson in French history involving one of those revolutions by the “common people” that ends with a lot of guillotine action, and wanders into fantasy with its treatment of the Alchemist as a ninja-like creature that moves so fast he blurs and can disappear at will. The film moves very fast (that is to say, the film never lingers for longer than a few seconds), and director Pitof and his two cinematographers seem to have used digital cameras to capture the action in lieu of traditional film cameras. The digital cameras give the movie a stark, naturalistic look and feel, but unlike the other movie I’ve seen shot on digital camera (the horror film “Session 9”), “Vidocq” goes for dizzy speed, close-up zooms, and odd angles.

Which brings us to “Vidocq”‘s biggest annoyance. Pitof has elected to film the movie as if he’s a speed freak — and alas, we have to see what this speed freak sees. The camera quite literally gets so close to a person’s face that we can almost see up his/her nostrils. I could have passed this off as some fancy experiment on Pitof’s part, only the entire movie is filled with such camerawork! (For those who aren’t sure what I’m talking about — remember the “Wayne’s World” segment on “Saturday Night Live” when the hosts yell, “Extreme Close-up!” and the camera zooms crazily in on their faces and zooms back out again? Well, that’s what Pitof does here. All the time.)

The unrelenting annoyance of close-up camerawork aside, “Vidocq” renders its 19th century French world with such filthy and distorted lens that you can’t help but be impressed. There is a lot of money on the screen, although the exquisite (and oh so filthy) French cityscape is sometimes lost in the film’s rapid-fire editing style. The term A.D.D.-inspired occurred to me every other frame, but Pitof’s flair for the visuals (that is, the ones not involving nostril-impairing camerawork) always left me a little speechless. The man certainly knows his craft, and if reined in a little bit more, he may yet become a good filmmaker. As it stands, “Vidocq” often feels chaotic for no purpose other than to be chaotic.

Story-wise, the film follows Etienne as he goes about discovering the days leading up to Vidocq’s fateful encounter with the Alchemist. A much-too-fat Depardieu shows up in various flashbacks to investigate the strange deaths of two industrialists who were struck by lightning. Actually, Etienne’s investigation is somewhat humorous, as he oftentimes simply bursts into people’s dens, homes, and offices without permission and demand answers from them. But what’s even more hilarious is that everyone actually provides him with the answers! This is convenient, of course, because Etienne is our link to Vidocq’s investigation in the past, and through Etienne we begin to see (through one flashback at a time) how Vidocq came to his end.

I call “Vidocq” an interesting failure for a reason. Its visuals, when it doesn’t try to examine every inch of a character’s face, are simply stunning. The film, though, is hindered by an uninteresting narrator in Guillaume Canet as Etienne and an uninteresting political struggle in the background (or at least uninteresting to my non-French eyes). Even the gorgeous Ines Sastre falls victim to skin pore-probing camerawork. The design of the Alchemist, on the other hand, is very inspired. The look and feel of the killer is the film’s grand achievement, but unfortunately a grossly overweight Gerard Depardieu is nowhere near believable as a super sleuth. (It’s called a diet, Gerard. Look it up.)

There is another bothersome aspect of the film that refused to go away. Pitof seems intent on covering the film in total darkness, relying too much on natural lighting, which means dark rooms are just that, dark. As a result, the film seems perpetually bathed in darkness, and even a brief scene that takes place in the daylight has its character’s faces half-in and –out of shadows. Is it asking too much just to be able to see what is going on? The action, too, is barely coherent, but that goes without saying with the film’s insistence on turning every frame into a game of “Guess who that is?” since you obviously can’t see their faces clearly.

Some more light, a little less erratic camerawork, and “Vidocq” could have been one heck of a film. As it stands, it’s just an interesting failure. But interesting, nevertheless.

Pitof (director) / Pitof, Jean-Christophe Grang’ (screenplay)
CAST: Gerard Depardieu …. Vidocq
Guillaume Canet …. Etienne Boisset
In’s Sastre …. Pr’ah
Edith Scob …. Sylvia
Moussa Maaskri …. Nimier
Jean-Pierre Gos …. Tauzet

Buy Vidocq on DVD