Vidocq is the debut film of French special effects wizard Pitof, better known for his work as technical effects supervisor on Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, Alien Resurrection and Asterix and Obelix. Who better then to direct the first film made completely using the latest in high-definition digital technology. Vidocq is filmed entirely using a Sony HDCAM24P1 high-definition digital camera, giving the director has far greater control than ever over the smallest of details, producing a grain-free image, strong contrast and an impossible depth of field. Has all this technology been put to great use? Well, almost…
Set in a Paris in 1830, revolution is stirring as the famous detective Vidocq (a rather burly but suitably charismatic Gerard Depardieu) is killed by a masked assassin while on an investigation into the mysterious (and spectacular) deaths by lightning of three prominent political personages. Journalist and Vidocq biographer, Etienne Boisset (Guillaume Canet) investigates the murder, following the trail that led to the detective’s death and finding that there is more behind the murders than political motivations – a darker affair involving exotic dancers, Parisian brothels, and occult rituals.
The story itself is not at all complicated. In fact, at the start of the film it is all a little too obvious and easy. The plot is somewhat compressed, resulting in investigations that hold no mystery or puzzle - a problem is no sooner posed than it is resolved. A hidden entrance leading to Vidocq’s secret laboratory is no sooner encountered in one shot than opened in the next. The average episode of Scooby Doo holds more suspense than this. But the pace of the film soon quickens and the path followed by the journalist cleverly converges with Vidoqc’s so that we see the original investigation and the follow-up almost simultaneously.
Vidocq was a real historical character, the first appointed chief of the Sureté (1811), whose innovative scientific and investigative techniques modernised the French police force and, as probably the world’s first private detective, his techniques were an obvious influence on the creation of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. His adventures have long been chronicled and fictionalised in French television drama and film. What has attracted the film-makers here is less the real person of Vidocq than the spirit of the character and his innovations into chemistry and forensics. This, alongside and the whole look and feel of the period, conjures up an irresistible dark and gothic world that is spectacularly materialised in the film. The dark imaginings of Marc Caro’s character designs – collaborator with Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Pitof on Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, along with Jean Rabasse’s set designs, are given full rein here to depict an imaginary, seedy and gothic Paris of 1830.
The potential of digital imaging, where every blade of grass and wisp of mist is under the complete control of the director, is fully exploited here. At times the image might appear a little too studio-bound, or rather PC-bound, creating an air-brushed, somewhat clinical quality similar to the Hallmark Gulliver’s Travels and Arabian Nights television productions. You rarely get the impression however that the special effects and technology are being used purely for the sake of it. It does seem to be employed well and in service of the story.
Simply put, the picture quality is perfect - absolute reference material. I have never seen a better quality picture on a DVD, but of course DVD is the natural medium for Vidocq. Even the 35mm prints shown in the cinema were only a transfer of the digital original whereas here we are presented with the film as it was meant to be seen. Visually, the film is an absolute feast. Pitof’s direction is not the most brilliant or imaginative and shows Orson Welles influences amongst others. Relying heavily on wide-angle and fish-eye lenses, the film creates a wholly-artificial, non-naturalistic setting, but the images are bold and colourful and the brilliant set designs make up for the paucity of imagination in the plot and direction. I only noticed one possible fault on my copy of the DVD when the film freezes for a split-second late in the film. It doesn’t appear to be a layer change, as this occurs mid-way through the film and is also quite noticeable, although it appears at an appropriate point.
We are given the choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS soundtracks. DTS seems the obvious one to go for and it performs adequately, but not as spectacularly as one would expect. I found it a little unimaginative and again, clinical - but then again I was listening without a sub-woofer output, so maybe I wasn’t getting the full benefit. There is little or no obvious difference between the DD 5.1 and DTS soundtracks. English subtitles are provided for the feature.
The DVD is packaged almost in exactly the same format as the superb French TF1 In The Mood For Love package. A slipbox contains a fold-out cardboard package holding two disks, one for the film and one for the extras. A booklet also acts as a guide through the numerous extras contained on the disks. NB. All of the extras are in French and none contain English subtitles.
Commentary with director, Pitof and chief-designer, Jean Rabasse
I only listened to about 30 minutes or so of the commentary, and I didn’t find it very interesting. What comes out of the commentary and the numerous interviews on the second disk is that the film was very much a team effort and the director isn’t any more important to the film than any of the other contributors. There is much talk of the contributions made by each unit and the preparation that went into the production before filming started. The director and designer frequently refer to the locations where the shooting took place and it is surprising to find out that a lot of the film was shot on location, in 16th century churches, narrow Bordeaux streets and at Les Invalides and other Paris locations. These are then treated digitally in post-production, but the film is not as computer-based as it actually appears. The commentary then seems to consist mainly of pointing-out what is real and what is digitally created and I don’t think we really need to know that.
Making of (23:16)
This is about the right length for a making-of feature. The director talks about directing the actors, the reasons for shooting in HD Digital, creating effects etc. The film is so obviously artificial and isn’t striving for naturalism that nothing is lost by explaining how it was done.
Interview with Pitof (director) (1:00:00)
At over an hour long, covering everything from the idea for the project right through to the concept for the DVD, this is really rather too long. Especially when there are no English subtitles and most of the topics are discussed elsewhere.
Interview with Jean-Christophe Grangé (writer) (18:53)
Author of a number of novels and script-writer for The Crimson Rivers, the interview with the writer is probably the most interesting feature among the extras. He discusses the liberating approach to scripting the film – being involved before the director was assigned to the film, he was given carte-blanche to do what he liked without concern for budget or whether what he wanted to do was possible or not. The writer also discusses the compartmentalised nature of the film-making process here. The script was written and it was left to others to cast, decide how and what to film. It was by no means a single person’s vision.
Interview with Fabien Lacaf (storyboarder) (19:36)
Storyboarding was especially important for this film as it helped define what effects and details needed to be digitally created and therefore also very important for budgeting purposes. Lacaf refers to the influences on the look and pacing of the film which range surprisingly from Sergio Leone to Gustave Doré – and more obviously, relying heavily on BD (comic-books) and video games. Lacaf speaks well about the process and it is interesting, but 20 minutes is a little too long for this feature.
A multi-angle feature showing 5 short-scenes from three angles. One angle for the film and storyboard, one for the storyboard only and one for the film only.
Interview with Guillaume Canet, Inès Sastre and Pitof (9:08)
In case you haven’t heard enough from the director and actors already, there is more interview material here. Among the subjects discussed here are the differences between filming in HD digital and 35mm and lots of compliments for Depardieu.
A selection of a dozen or so striking poster designs for the film.
Marc Caro’s detailed character sketches for all the principal characters are displayed throughout the extras. They obviously contributed greatly to the concept and the feel of the film.
Writer Jean-Christophe Grangé discusses all the principal characters. Split into 7 segments over the DVD these interviews total about 35 minutes. These are less interesting than the main interview with the writer as they mostly tell you things that are obvious about the characters from watching the film. A 9 minute discussion of the villain, The Alchemist, is the most interesting of all the character discussions and is done without giving away any spoilers.
Teaser and trailer
The teaser (0:20) and trailer (1:49) are both presented anamorphically and they look impressive. You can see them on the Official Web-site.
Special effects (7:20)
Scenes are shown from the film with a commentary track explaining how the effects were created. This feature concentrates mainly on the creating of the Alchemist’s digital 3-D mask. This is the only extra that gives away a lot of what happens at the end of the film. It is an interesting feature that doesn’t go overboard explaining how everything was done.
Apocalyptica music video
Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, this is a music-video, directed by Pitof using scenes and sets from the film. The music is a bizarre combination of string quartet and death-metal, which works well on the soundtrack but listening to it like this you realise how awful it really is.
Scrolling filmographies are provided for all the principal actors and the director.
I haven’t looked at this, but I am assured that it contains all the usual material including screen-savers and internet links.
I only discovered one hidden feature, but there may be others. A one-minute feature shows scenes before and after special effects were added. This can be found in the Vidocq segment of the extras disc by selecting the horns of the puppet.
In the end the film’s plot is really rather simplistic and its twists and revelations don’t bear close scrutiny, but it’s such good fun, well-paced and not over-long, that you don’t really care. Maybe someday all this fabulous technology will be matched with useful ideas and an intelligent story, but in the meantime, rather like Moulin Rouge, we’ll have to make do with this wonderful but ultimately empty spectacle demonstrating the rapidly developing capabilities of modern digital technology in cinema.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 18:00:16