The Story: Paris, 1830. Former criminal, inventor, master of disguise, scientist, detective, and all around genius Vidocq (Gerard Depardieu) appears to have become a victim of his latest case. A young reporter, Etienne, follows the trail of clues Vidocq left behind him. The case began with the mysterious murder of two businessmen, Belmont and Veraldi, who died by the curious means of lightning striking their gunpowder dusted clothing. As Etienne retraces Vidocq's investigation, encountering Vidocq's acquaintances like the lovely dancer Preah, he is taken into the brothels and seedy underworld of Paris. It is there that he begins to unravel the tale of high powered businessmen in a quest for eternal youth, and the cause behind the murders, a devilish figure of legend cloaked in black with a nightmarish mirror mask and seemingly supernatural powers known only as The Alchemist.
The Film: Essentially, Vidocq (2001) is a fluff piece of pulp cinema. It is sort of a Sherlock Holmes/Doc Savage dark adventure story. Shades of Sleepy Hollow and Young Sherlock Holmes. It is infinitely more interesting than the similar French supernatural mystery/adventure dud
Belphegor, and seems to be riding on that wave of such hybrid horror-action fare. One needs to look no further than its script which was co-written by the writer of The Crimson Rivers. And, it comes as no surprise, its another French action piece where the HK martial arts action influence is there as Vidocq and The Alchemist engage in some spinning, semi-martial choreography during their tussles. Its not as blatant as something like Brotherhood of the Wolf and is actually one of the better parts of the film despite the fact that the rotund Depardeiu is obviously being doubled, because it is so fantastical it really doesn't matter. It is the kind of film absent of any pretense of realism, it is all about the fantasy and visuals, which are eye-popping. While the films has some great intricate and beautiful set designs, it does go completely overboard in manipulated scenery (you'll read why in just a minute), it seems no scene of the film doesn't have some CGI digital matte painting work, lending to interesting eye candy and the overall unreality of its tone.
Vidocq was directed by a man calling himself Pitof. If you are anything like me, you instantly question anyone who decides that one name encapsulates them far better than the rest of us poor suckers who need two, even (gasp) three names to identify ourselves. Anyway, Pitof is one of the young bloods of French film visual fx designers, having worked with Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro on Delicatessen and City of Lost Children as well as Jeunet's Alien: Resurrection. He also worked on the special effects of films such as Luc Besson's Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc and the box office smashes Asterix and Obelix Vs. Caesar and Les Visiteurs. Those films should give you a pretty clear idea of his style, and that it is visual style, not story depth, that drives the film. It really isn't very concerned at all with the mystery of who is The Alchemist, the list of suspects is narrow, and basically the film is more interested in The Alchemists eerie mirror mask, raspy voice, and creepy supernatural shenanigans. Likewise the sets are amazing, on par with anything in the Jeunet/Caro films, but as the camera pans along Vidocq's laboratory, Pitof doesn't shy away from showing us Vidocq's display of disguises- leading you to ask yourself "Gee, wonder if the will come up later?" It is all about style, and honestly the style is pretty winning. It wont change the world of cinema, and Pitof doesn't appear any more or less skilled than any of the Gilliam imitators out there. Despite its faults, it is entertaining just becasue of the pacing and dazzling visuals.
Vidocq was the first all digital feature film, beating George Lucas to cinema screens as the first film shot, edited, and overall mastered digitally. It used the same HD camera Lucas uses, a Power Mac G4 to edit and process fx, and the matte work was done with a Photoshop program. And, Vidocq still doesn't convince me digital is the future, that it will completely replace traditional film. For one thing it is still rough, some shots look like just what they are, a video camera, hardly different from an image I could make with a store bought digital camera. If I want to look at home videos- I'll stay at home. Sure, DV can be much sharper, deeper focus, more definition, but what golden rule says that cinema a is supposed to be sharp? What, are Eraserhead and Days of Heaven not considered amazing visual films, even though they aren't as sharp as an image can possibly get? To my eye, a photographers eye no less, Photoshop's smoothness and artificiality often looks no different than airbrushed paintings on the side of a 1970's van. I guess it all depends on the artist, and while the unreality and obviousness works with Vidocq, Pitof does go overboard with his more mobile digital camera, giving some awkward close ups and handheld shots that most filmmakers would have left on the cutting room floor. Heck, Kurosawa would have spat on them and made sure they were burned. So, Vidocq is a neat curiousiy, but it doesnt take great strides in cementing the anti-35mm revolution.
The DVD: Seville Pictures, from the French-Canadian arm of releases.
Picture- Widescreen. The transfer is pretty good, though not perfect. There is some shimmer and edge enhancement, but it is not bad enough to heavily distract from the film (anymore so than the already blatant digital manipulation). The picture is quite dark, but I get the feeling this may be the directors intention. Sharpness, color, and contrast look fine.
Sound- French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or 2.0 Stereo with optional white English subtitles. Both tracks were quite good, fairly dynamic, nice fx, clear dialogue, good score, with the fx getting the biggest surround workout.
Extras- 20 Chapters--- Costume Design Art Gallery---Poster Gallery--- Teaser and Theatrical Trailers (with Eng subs)--- Storyboard doc (20 mins, French only, no subs)--- Making of Featurette (7mins, no subs)--- Director Interview (40 mins, no subs)--- Scenery Director Interview (19mins, no subs)--- (general 'making of' doc, cast interviews, behind the scenes (7mins, no subs)--- DVD Credits
Conclusion: Well, neat, flawed but entertaining film. As you can see by the extras, it is only a great disc if you speak French. I'd give the extras around four to four and half stars if they were English friendly. But, as it is, I cannot say it is anything more than a rental or maybe a worthwhile purchase for the really curious, the French, or the seriously bilingual.