Vidocq (2001)

Author: J.T. Jeans
Submitted by: J.T. Jeans   Date : 2008-03-18 11:13

Written by: Jean-Christophe Grange
Directed by: Pitof
Produced by: Dominique Farrugia

Reviewed by: J.T. Jeans

This review contains MODERATE SPOILERS for the film Vidocq. Additionally, this review is based on the 2003 Canadian release, not the 2007 United States release, and as such details regarding the English dub are not included.

I'm a fan of blurring genres. I like it when a film takes two different story types and slaps them together to create something that doesn't do what you expect. Sometimes the end result is awesome, other times it leads to bitter tears and the angry shaking of fists at the sky. In the case of Vidocq, we've got a little bit of everything -- science fiction, action, horror, historical, and supernatural. That's one hell of a combination.

But before we go any further, I'd like to share a little back-story on just how I came to discover the film: in mid-2006, a friend who was attending college out-of-state found himself with a bit of downtime and decided to return home for a visit. I only saw him once while he was in, but he brought with him a DVD that was absolutely brimming with music videos. These were pretty obscure songs, recorded by bands that many an Average Joe will never have heard of before.

On this particular compilation disc was a music video called Hope Vol. II. The song was performed by the instrumental alternative band Apocalyptica and featured guest artist Matthias Sayer on vocals. I was instantly attracted to the band's style -- these are the only guys I've ever seen rock out on celli -- and Hope Vol. II is now one of my all-time favorite songs.

But even more intriguing than the music was the footage that accompanied it. Spliced in with footage of the band performing were sequences involving not only a mirror-masked villain locked in heated battle with an aging Gérard Depardieu, but also bizarrely stylized footage of 19th century Paris.

At first glance I thought that it was another in a long line of high-concept music videos; the sort of high-budgeted mini-movie that, at the time, seemed to be a growing trend in music video production. But after several days of digging, I discovered that the video was in fact a montage of scenes from a little-known sci-fi/horror film called Vidocq. At that time the film had yet to see release in the United States, but fortunately it had been out in Canada for some time. So, like any good sci-fi/horror fan boy worth his salt, I promptly hopped online and ordered it from Amazon's Canadian branch.

Vidocq begins with the title character, criminal-gone-detective Eugène François Vidocq (Gérard Depardieu), hot on the trail of a mirror-masked wraith known as the Alchemist. The pair tussle in the basement of an old refinery and Vidocq puts up an impressive fight, but unfortunately for the aging detective, the Alchemist is stronger and faster. Vidocq finds himself dangling helplessly over a fiery pit, and in his final moments pleads with the Alchemist to reveal his true identity. The Alchemist complies, and what Vidocq sees beneath the mask shocks him into losing his grip and tumbling into the furnace.

Following the public announcement of Vidocq's untimely death, Étienne Boisset (Guillaume Canet), a young writer who has been collaborating with Vidocq on a definitive biography, arrives in Paris with the intention of following in Vidocq's footsteps and unmasking the killer who was responsible for the detective's death. Along the way Boisset questions Vidocq's partner, Nimier (Moussa Maaskri), and Préah (Inés Sastre), Vidocq's hired lover and confidant.

As Boisset retraces Vidocq's steps, we see Vidocq's initial investigation unfold in the form of flashbacks. Boisset's own investigation leads him to the startling revelation that the Alchemist utilizes the mirror mask to trap the souls of his victims at the moment of death, thus allowing the Alchemist to live much longer than an average human, perhaps even forever.

Can young Boisset realistically hope to unmask Vidocq's killer and bring justice to those who have fallen victim to the Alchemist's twisted fountain of youth, or will he become the next in a long line of victims to have lost not only their lives, but their souls as well?

Despite what George Lucas would like us to believe, Vidocq is actually the first major motion picture to be shot entirely on digital film. Director Pitof was a visual effects artist before making the jump to directing, and he decided to shoot digital because post-production demanded a massive amount of digital manipulation. Considering the film's budget, the heavy use of digital matte paintings actually works really well. 19th century France comes to life on screen in a way that's both strangely surreal and beautiful.

This was Pitof's first film as Director, and was made several years before the critically panned Catwoman. In hindsight, it's hard to believe the same man directed both films. The decision to cast Depardieu as Vidocq was inspired, and the supporting cast all give strong, believable performances.

The film is stylistic without degrading to the level of a high budget music video, the action sequences are well choreographed (although there are moments when extreme close-ups on the action can get disorienting), the montage of the Alchemist's evil deeds prior to the film is suitably disturbing, there's a couple of good jump scares peppered throughout the film, and the twist leading to the revelation of the Alchemist's identity managed to surprise even me (for those curious, Jean-Christophe Grange wrote the screenplay, and it's a rather intelligent piece of writing overall).

The bulk of the film's soundtrack is composed by Bruno Coulais, but it also features the aforementioned Apocalyptica song (pitch shifted up for some bizarre reason) as well as compositions by Vivaldi and Mozart (Symphony No. 29 KV 201 features prominently during the pre-title fight scene and is very effective). Coulais's work isn't nearly as memorable as the Vivaldi and Mozart tracks, but it does the job just fine, particularly in the scenes when the Alchemist exterminates some of his victims early in the film without so much as touching them.

Now, before I go on, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't warn that this film is as much sci-fi and murder mystery as it is horror. In fact, before even beginning the review, I had a long think about whether or not there's enough outright horror in Vidocq to justify an O-T-H Review. The film really does walk a fine line. But in the end I decided that the Alchemist is very much in the supernatural slasher killer mold, and while there might not be enough carnage to satisfy everyone, I think the film still meets the base criteria for inclusion on this site.

Speaking of carnage, there are a couple of decent deaths in the film, but there's nothing really overt. There's more nudity and bawdy imagery than good ol' fashion grue, although there is one sequence in the Alchemist's lair that pretty much assures this film will score higher on the gore scale than it otherwise might have.

But despite how dry the film tends to be, it still feels like the Alchemist poses a real threat to the people of Paris, and I never once found myself wondering why it was these people couldn't outwit/outrun the thing that is trying to kill them. I'd even go so far as to say that the Alchemist is in my top 10 list of favorite slasher killers.

Vidocq is an exercise in style that still tries to maintain a bit of substance. When originally released in 2001, it stood out as a unique piece of cinema that tried to create almost entirely synthetic landscapes on a moderate budget, and to that end I think it succeeds fairly well. The plot is extremely dense, but there are a few unexpected twists and turns. The cast is strong across the board, and the film features one of the most unique slasher killers in a long time. It's only a shame it wasn't released in North America until six years after its theatrical run in France. If you don't mind a little sci-fi and murder mystery with your horror, it's definitely worth a watch -- Rent It!

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