This French horror fest from 2001 will likely be remembered more for its technical innovations than anything else. It makes greater use of the digital medium than just about any other film of its time (although, needless to say, it’s since been surpassed in that area), boasts impressive filmmaking and has a reasonably compelling story. Ultimately, however, it falls far short of classic, or even semi-classic, status.
With VIDOCQ (released on DVD as DARK PORTALS: THE CHRONICLES OF VIDOCQ), first time director Pitof made ground breaking use of the digital format; it was the first film to be shot with the Sony digital 1080p 24 fps camera (which is now George Lucas’ camera of choice). It’s also something of a companion piece to the previous year’s BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF (LE PACTE DES LOUPS) in its horror-action milieu, its bold, energetic approach to period filmmaking and the number of major French stars, led by the iconic Gerard Depardieu, that grace its cast. Interestingly enough, BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF was widely considered the apotheosis of digital filmmaking upon its initial release, but VIDOCQ took that film’s technical innovations several degrees farther, making it the premiere digital ground-breaker. Pitof’s sophomore effort, unfortunately, was the Hollyweird bomb CATWOMAN, about which the less is said the better.
Paris, circa 1830: the reality based Vidocq is an ex-con turned legendary detective who finds himself hanging by his fingertips over a well of flame. A hooded figure with a mirror mask over his/her face stands over him; the figure removes its mask and Vidocq loses his grip.
As the public mourns Vidocq’s death, a determined young reporter named Etienne Boisset is looking to write a biography of the late detective. As Boisset investigates his subject’s final days, in which Vidocq was caught up in a bizarre case involving the aforementioned hooded figure, known as the Alchemist, he confronts a number of suspicious figures, all of whom meet gruesome deaths in Boisset’s wake.
Flashbacks, meanwhile, fill us in on Vidocq’s search for the Alchemist, triggered by the suspicious deaths of an arms dealer and a chemist, both struck by lightning. Vidocq suspects the lightning was man made and his suspicions deepen when he learns both victims had metal combs stuck inside their hats that seemed placed to attract electricity. The combs, he learns, were attached by Vidocq’s own mistress, a prostitute who claims to have been guided by a mysterious letter. Vidocq’s investigations into the lives of the Alchemist’s two victims, whose ranks quickly come to include a third, reveal that they sold virginal girls from poor families to the Alchemist, who promised the deluded men the secret of eternal life in exchange. After a brutalized young woman leads him to the Alchemist’s creepily opulent laboratory, Vidocq comes to believe that the Alchemist uses the blood of virgin girls to create his mirrored mask, which in absorbing the reflection of a person’s face also steals his/her soul.
Boisset, for his part, follows his subject’s trail to the dungeon where Vidocq met his end at the hands of the Alchemist. A fateful confrontation awaits…
To be sure, this is an incredible looking film, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, as the art director was the brilliant Marc Caro, of DELICATESSON and CITY OF LOST CHILDREN fame. Bold, imaginative and extremely skillfully visualized, there isn’t a single shot here that doesn’t impress in some way…and therein lies the problem. Put succinctly, this film is overdirected to the point of absurdity, being that rarity of rarities: too much of a good thing.
As a director Pitof is energetic to a fault, favoring multiple set-ups and rapid-fire cutting between wide shots and extreme close-ups. The camerawork, much of it accomplished via computerized technology, is fluid and sweeping, and the landscapes, often colored in with digital enhancements or simply conjured up altogether via digital means, are crisp and vivid…and plainly unreal. If nothing else, VIDOCQ is likely the closest any filmmaker will ever come to creating a live-action cartoon.
RF2K Studiocanal TF1 Films/Canal+
Producer: Dominique Farrugia
Screenplay: Jean-Christopher Grange, Pitof
Cinematography: Jean-Pierre Sauvaire
Editor: Thierry Hoss
Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Guillame Canet, Ines Sastre, Andre Dussolier, Moussa Maaskri, Isabelle Renaud, Jean-Pierre Gos, Jean-Pol Dubois, Andre Penvern, Gilles Arbona, Jean Marc Thibault, Akonio Dolo, Edith Scob, Francois Chattot, Elsa Kikoine