Vidocq (DVD)

“Fine, I’m a murderer. And who are you?”

Eugene Francois Vidocq was a real-life character who followed an early life of crime with becoming police chief in 19th century Paris and later a private investigator. He has been the inspiration for at least four films and two television series. The best known of these, at least to North American audiences, would be Douglas Sirk’s 1946 A Scandal in Paris that starred George Sanders as the Vidocq character. The latest version is simply titled Vidocq — a 2001 French production that is actually the first feature film released to have been entirely filmed in digital video. Seville Pictures has now released the film on a Region 1 DVD in Canada as part of its Seville Signature Collection.

Private investigator Francois Vidocq is retained to capture The Alchemist, a shadowy figure with a mirror-like face who seems to be in the business of stealing souls in early 19th century Paris. He is also believed to be behind the deaths of three Paris businessmen who spent their private time seeking eternal youth. Vidocq manages to track his adversary down only to be dispatched by him during a violent confrontation that ensues. Vidocq’s young biographer Etienne Boiset then proceeds to try to retrace Vidocq’s steps in hopes of discovering the identity of The Alchemist for himself and providing closure on Vidocq’s life.

When a person starts calling him or herself by a single name, it’s often a good tip-off about the individual’s over-inflated opinion of themselves. Such is the case of French director Pitof and his first feature length film called Vidocq. This is one of the more self-indulgent efforts I’ve seen. Pitof’s background is in the area of visual effects, Alien Resurrection and The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc being two of his recent efforts. That background is at the forefront in Vidocq, because if there’s any reason to see this film it’s for its unique look. Certainly the story and two-bits wouldn’t buy you more than a 25-cent super sucker. I say “any reason,” but honestly, your time will be well saved by avoiding this pastiche of obvious and overused CGI, computer game reminders, frenetic editing, murky lighting, awkward and annoying camera-angles and camera movement, and Matrix– and Star Wars: Ep.1-inspired action sequences. This is a mind-numbing experience that just demonstrates that not all the bad films are made by Hollywood.

Gerard Depardieu was convinced to take the title role in the film. Of course, that’s not particularly difficult these days. Once upon a time, Depardieu was actually a good actor who made good choices (Le Retour de Martin Guerre [1982], Camille Claudel [1988]), but for the past decade seems to have settled into a rut of taking on anything offered to him. It’s almost as though he’s trying to set a record for the most roles in a calendar year. For example, he already has seven credits for 2002. In Vidocq, he spends most of the film running around looking grim, to little discernible purpose. Either he somehow thought that was the appropriate approach for the role or he realized he was in a turkey and just wanted to get it over with. My money’s on the latter. The rest of the cast is forgettable, although the three murdered men are at least interesting-looking types.

One would like to take the time to say something intelligent about the use of digital video for this release, because that fact alone should give the film some degree of importance. Unfortunately the whole experience is just so bad that it tends to give a bad name to digital video, and that seems unfair at this early stage. This is one of those situations where if you can’t say anything good, you shouldn’t say anything at all. So be it!

As mentioned, this is an entry in Seville’s DVD Signature Collection. (The first such release was the previously reviewed Kandahar.) Vidocq is given a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that appears to be of a high standard. I say “appears” because so much of the film is shot in shadowy locations and with shifting camera angles that it can be hard to tell how crisp the image really is. When the story actually settles down from time to time, it is clear, however, that this is a quality transfer indeed. At those times, the clarity and detail evident in objects and people’s faces is excellent. Edge enhancement is not a concern and video noise is minimal even in the murkiest sequences.

Two French language Dolby Digital sound tracks are offered — 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo. The former is a striking mix indeed that features an impressive use of the surrounds involving movement from front to back and side to side as well as effective low frequency effects. The music in the film is also quite striking in itself although its driving nature sometimes overpowers everything else in the surround audio mix provided here. Optional English subtitles are also provided.

The array of supplements on the disc is impressive, except in one crucial respect. The various items are only available in French; no English options are provided at all. In rating the supplements, I have done so assuming that the viewer can understand French. If that’s not the case, the value of them is substantially reduced. Included are an informative though occasionally self-congratulatory audio commentary by director Pitof and an unidentified other individual, lengthy interviews with Pitof and with the scriptwriter Jean-Claude Grange, a rather standard seven-minute making-of documentary (“Documentaire sur le tournage du film”), an interesting 20-minute account of the film’s storyboarding (“Documentaire sur les scenarimages”), a seven-minute documentary on special effects (“Documentaire sur les effets speciaux”), costume sketches, poster images, a music video, and the theatrical teaser and trailer.

In terms of presentation, Vidocq represents a second fine effort from Seville in their DVD Signature Collection. Unfortunately the film itself doesn’t merit the effort. It’s a completely self-indulgent exercise by one-name director Pitof that pays more attention to style than substance. The style, however, is just annoying, so the overall result contains virtually nothing to warrant spending 98 minutes of one’s time. The DVD is a Canada-only release, but should be available elsewhere via Canadian online stores for those who care. Not recommended.

THE VERDICT

The film is guilty as charged. Co-conspirator Seville is urged to seek out more-worthy material for future release in its prestige DVD series and ensure that English options accompany all components of its discs.

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