[Originally Written for The Ain’t It Cool News – received no response]
HARRY — A while back you were real excited about a french picture called VIDOCQ. It’s directed by the fellow Pitof, who did special effects type work for CITY OF THE LOST CHILDREN and ALIENS RESURRECTED and the joan of arc picture with Milla Jovovich. Also Marc Caro – the only man in the world who can say he directed DELICATESSEN but has never done a romantic comedy – designed the look of the characters. It’s based on some old detective character called Vidocq, who I guess must be the french Sherlock Holmes although americans have never heard of him on account of his name is spelled weird.
Well I am only a simple american but I have seen VIDOCQ now so I have a few words on the subject. I sort of agree with the frenchmen who reviewed it on your sight because this is not gonna be anybody’s favorite movie of the year. No pants will be wet. The characters and story are not dead on perfect like AMELIE and there is no hardcore pornography in there like other french films that have made it to US art house type theaters lately. But that does not mean it’s a bad film. In fact it is a pretty fuckin good one and most people who see it will be glad they did. It is clever and the connection to THE LOST CHILDREN is pretty obvious not only in the visuals but in some elements of the story.
You see this is a movie that combines france of the 1830s with fantastical type elements. The story begins with a thrilling battle between Vidocq (Gerard Depardieu, who americans first fell in love with in 102 DALMATIONS) and The Alchemist (some dude in a mask). The whole time they are dancing around a big pit spewing phoney looking digital flames, so you know one of them is going down.
Well, contrary to what you may have read [VERN NOTE: you may have read it in a supposed review on Ain’t It Cool News], Vidocq is NOT the main character. Instead it is a young individual who comes to Vidocq’s partner and claims to be the late detective’s official biographer. His book is almost completed but what better way to honor its subject than to reveal the identity of the killer in the last chapter? So the biographer tries to retrace Vidocq’s steps on his last case, to solve the mystery. As he uncovers clues there are many clever transitions into flashbacks of Vidocq working the case. (So don’t worry Dalmation fans, Depardieu shows up many times.) And then the Alchemist seems to be following him, killing everybody he interviews. There is blood, etc.
Your previous reviewers didn’t seem to like the fantastical elements mixed into the historical setting. I’m not sure what they expected. I mean the villain is named The Alchemist, not The Pharmacist or The Practicioner of Accepted Modern Scientific Principles. He’s not even The Herbalist. In my opinion this is what keeps the story interesting. If we wanted fucking Poirot we’d watch PBS. Instead we get The Case of the Lightning Conspiracy, which involves two people being struck by lightning, a circle of rich perverts, somebody killing virgins, and the alchemist wearing a mirror mask so that his victims see themselves in the face of their killer. Just the kind of shit you’d expect from a guy named Pitof.
A WORD ABOUT SPECIAL EFFECTS DUDES DIRECTING MOVIES. In general this is something that should be avoided. I don’t want to prejudge a motherfucker but I think we have enough evidence that we, as a society and culture, can stand up against it as an abomination against Cinema. Some pictures that come to mind: SPAWN, A GNOME NAMED GNORM, HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE, THE FLY II, THE PAGEMASTER, JUMANJI, JURASSIC PARK III, THE DEMOLITIONIST, WISHMASTER, VIRUS, and of course SPAWN should be mentioned again for emphasis. I mean, jesus. SPAWN! But to be fair, there are instances where we must be thankful that this societal rule was ignored. David Fincher for example started out doing effects for George Lucas and went on to direct 1999 Outlaw Award Winner for Best Fuckin Picture FIGHT CLUB. He is one of the best modern directors and there he was, way back when, playing with little toy spaceships in a glorified garage somewheres, for money.
Another notable exception is Stephen Norrington, who defied all laws of science and art by 1. being an effects guy turned director 2. doing a Marvel Comics movie 3. having it be about vampires and 4. starring Wesley Snipes with 5. martial arts set to 6. techno music with 7. “MTV style” editing and somehow made it A GREAT FUCKING PICTURE. We are still waiting to see if he can create a worthy followup but we should at least give him a tiny bit of credit-by-association for this year’s best picture so far, BLADE II, since he set the tone and established the world and characters.
And with those two in mind, let me also note that they started their directing careers with a whimper. Fincher’s first one was the third Alien movie, the one everyone hated until Fincher became popular, where the tone and atmosphere are nice but all the characters are bald and you can’t tell them apart and they just run around in hallways and never seem to be in real danger even though some janitor character we knew nothing about got eaten. Norrington’s first was a mildly competent killer robot movie called DEATH MACHINE – nothing to Write mom about. Pitof is off to a more impressive start.
The look of the movie is completely artificial. He always puts the best dark clouds in the sky and the right gloomy buildings in the background. But it’s nice that just because he’s an effects dude he didn’t base his movie around some gnome or pumpkinhead or alien or death machine. The biggest effect is the mirror mask that the Alchemist wears, and sometimes birds fly out of his cloak. But he is mainly in a couple of big showoff sequences. Most of the movie is about trying to track him down.
The biggest issue this picture brings up is the use of HIGH DEFINITION DIGITAL VIDEO. So let’s end this with a discussion of this dangerous technology.
MY STANCE ON DV: Don’t ever use it if you don’t have to. You NRA nuts know what I’m talkin about. It is okay to collect digital video cameras or use it for home made pornography. But if you can afford real film and cameras it is ALWAYS the best choice. I have seen some decent movies shot on video (DANCER IN THE DARK, BAISE MOI, CHUCK AND BUCK, TAPE) but most of them woulda looked better on film. DV made BAMBOOZLED and ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY unbearably ugly. And it’s gonna be a long fuckin time before you can see something on video and not feel like you’re watching tv or somebody’s birthday party home video.
The ONLY top notch use of DV I’ve seen is JULIEN DONKEY BOY by some lady named Harmony Korine. She transferred the video to film and then back again or some fancypants shit like that and she degraded the image enough that it is interesting to look at, whatever it is. Like a less extreme version of what the fellow did in BEGOTTEN. But most people are just imitating the look of film, and that includes Pitof.
Pitof’s use of DV on VIDOCQ is a tough one. On one hand, it does look more like film than any DV I’ve seen before. Most of the movie looks beautiful and cinematic, lots of dark shadows, etc. After the initial “this is some TV show, not a real movie” shock, you mostly forget that you are watching some fuckin video camera. You start to think that you are watching an actual movie. The genuine article. If the technology improves, some day it actually WILL be a real movie. I won’t even care. And Pitof supposedly chose the DV because it gave his effects people more freedom to manipulate the images, so there was an actual artistical type reason to use it, they’re not just being cheap skates.
On the other hand, it still DOESN’T quite look like a real movie. And this will be more obvious in pictures that aren’t deliberately trying to look phoney like VIDOCQ. What happens when we, the Badass Cinema community, finally get another Mariachi picture and it doesn’t even look like film? Would Sergio Leone have used digital video if it was invented before he died? Did Kubrick try it out? NO FUCKIN WAY. It is important to hold yourself up to a standard.
This issue also affects Newsies, because the same camera is being used for the upcoming STAR TREK PART 2. And I think it will make Yodaland (or whatever in fuck they call the darth vader universe) look a little less like a real place and a little more like a nintendo game. I know Harry and Morry have already seen it, and I don’t remember any complaints about the video. But if they’re using the same cameras Pitof used, I’m betting it is distracting at times. I personally thought the ad they showed on Fox TV looked more phoney than the last one, the one with Darth Maul, RETURN OF THE PHANTOM I believe it was called. I think when you’ve already made, what, 4 or 5 other Star Trek films, and they were all FILMS, it’s kind of a punk bitch type maneuver to put out a Star Trek VIDEO all the sudden. At least finish the story before you completely change the look. There are gonna be Newsies CRYING when they see this thing, in my opinion. And not because they are moved by computer Yoda’s performance.
But that remains to be seen. I guess there’s no harm in all of Hollywood jumping head long into an incomplete technology. It worked for Dr. Frankenstein, didn’t it? I don’t know, I never finished the book.
Anyway, VIDOCQ’s pretty good, though. If they bring it to theaters or DVD here give it a shot.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.