Le Pharmacien de Garde Review

French cinema is renowned for superb psychological drama and tense thrillers, so why is it that there are so few, if any, successful forays into the supernatural horror genre? Perhaps, as my learned colleague and noted French cinema critic Mark Boydell has remarked, "supernatural events seem to clash with the Cartesian nature of France", or perhaps, as I would suspect myself, they watched far too much Scooby-Doo on television as children. Whatever the reason, the French just can’t seem to take the horror genre at all seriously and this is perfectly exemplified in Le Pharmacien de Garde.

After an ecological disaster caused by an oil-spill off the coast of France, an oil magnate is found dead, drowned in a pool of oil. This is followed by other elaborate, gruesome and ironically appropriate murders of the CEO of a major tobacco company and the owner of a cosmetics firm that tests their products on animals. The murders are being carried out by a killer with an ecological conscience, a chemist, Yan Lazarrec (Vincent Perez). At a gathering of fellow eco-warriors Lazarrec befriends François Barrier (Guillaume Depardieu), unaware that the young man is actually a police detective investigating his murders.

This sounds like a clever ploy of the detective to mix in the circles that such a killer might frequent, but that would be crediting François with a little more intelligence than he really has. He is in fact completely incompetent, allowing personal concerns over his breakup with an unfaithful girlfriend to affect his work. He allows witnesses to be endangered, puts his partner at risk, and is completely unaware than his new best friend who wants to help him out with his personal problems, is the dangerous killer he is looking for.

If the plot isn’t enough to alert you to the fact that the film is operating with tongue firmly in cheek, there are plenty of other examples of humour evidenced throughout and the film is not above even flirting with slapstick, puns and broad farce. There is a running gag about relationships – every couple in the film seems to be going through break-ups over the phone – while poor François after his break-up only seems to be able to attract the attentions of a psychotic killer and a transvestite prostitute called Tony (Pascal Légitimus) who provides some of the best lines and situations in the film when he is unfortunate enough to be placed under the police protection of the bungling François.

At no point does Le Pharmacien de Garde take itself the least bit seriously, but this seems to have gone completely over the heads of French critics and viewers who have been merciless in their criticism of the film. At every stage it demonstrates a complete self-awareness and self-referential irony. Depardieu’s role subverts the usual good-looking but troubled heroic lead by being incompetent in both his personal and professional relationships. To add to the viewer’s confusion, Depardieu brilliantly plays the role completely straight. Perez, on the other hand, subverts his on-screen persona (The Crow 2: City of Angels) with the arch-campness of a Batman villain. The chemist even has a secret mad-scientist laboratory under his shop where he brews concoctions for future experiments.

There is a half-hearted attempt to tie Yan’s supernatural powers into Breton Druidic lore, but really the film is not interested in exploring either the ancient Celtic rituals of northern France nor in linking them with modern eco-terrorism. Ultimately however, the film does seem to fall under the weight of its own knowingness and never really lets the viewer in on the joke (and to be honest I’m not totally convinced that the director is in on the joke either).

The Océan/TF1 French Region 2 release comes as a 2 disc special edition with a third bonus disc of catalogue trailers. The feature contains good English subtitles, well translated by someone who can see the humour in the film. There are quite a number of extra features, none of them particularly over-long, but none of them contain English subtitles.

There are no problems with the transfer of Le Pharmacien de Garde. It doesn’t look like a big budget film and makes sparing use of special effects, thus avoiding any real comparison to Vidocq. Set lighting isn’t terribly effective, making interiors look too bright and studio-lit, while dark underground and night-time scenes are slightly grainy and murky as if ordinary film has been pushed to cope with lower lit conditions. Still, it looks fabulous in the main, clear and sharp with no artefacts or problems with the actual DVD transfer.

The sound is terrific. There is a DTS 6.1 ES and a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, although there is not really much between them. Both sound rather good - clear and loud, they make use of the surrounds well, if a little unimaginatively and clinically. A Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is also included.

Extras - Disc 1
Le Temps d'un Tournage (5:50)
This is a short promo EPK-style making of feature, showing some behind the scenes recording and some interview soundbites.

Trailer (1:44)
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic, the trailer is quite good. There are not any real spoilers, since the film is not a murder-mystery – you know who the killer is from the first 5 minutes of the film.

Jean Veber refers frequently Marco Prince's music (at least once every 5 minutes) which he feels helps the mood of the film tremendously. In between he tells us what we can already see on the screen. This is not a useful commentary. In French with no subtitles.

Extras - Disc 2
Making of (14:53)
Presented in 4:3, DD 2.0, French, no subtitles. This features interviews mainly with director Jean Veber and Vincent Perez. The interviews are inter-cut with behind the scenes footage of the setting-up scenes, preparing actors and the filming of scenes from the film. The director talks about influences, how he wanted to do a thriller and a genre piece but one based on character rather than special effects.

Behind the Scenes (20 mins)
This is split into 5 sections, each featuring different aspects of the making of the film – props, make-up, sets, special effects and stunts.

Storyboards (2 mins)
Three short scenes are shown. A multi-angle option allows you to zoom between the scene and the storyboard.

Music in 5.1 (3:35)
This presents a 5.1 mix of the theme ‘Le Sang de la Terre’, by Marco Prince. It’s really an advertisement for the CD soundtrack.

About the Music (text)
Marco Prince, a singer in ‘fonck-rock’ band ‘fff’ makes some rather over the top and self-congratulatory claims for the musical score, a blend of classical and hard rock (like Vidocq), but also incorporating (he says), soul, oriental harmonies, and bossa-nova (very trendy).

Jean Veber Interview and Filmography (4:55)
A short interview made up of snippets and soundbites, some of which also appear in the Making Of feature. The director talks about trying to open-up a new wave of American-style genre films.

Vincent Perez Interview and Filmography (3:25)
After directing his first film (the marvellous Peau d’Ange), Perez found it difficult to get in front of the camera again. He talks about how Veber used that hesitancy as part of the character’s make-up. Again, the interview is short and made up of snippets.

Guillaume Depardieu Interview and Filmography (2:34)
The least substantial of the interviews, Depardieu talks a little about his character.

La Ballade de Don (6:29)
This is an early short film by Jean Veber from 1998. A down and out in Paris sees himself as a modern-day Don Quixote. He sees a multi-headed dragon on the neon-lit windmill of the Moulin Rouge. The film is a bit short, but is quite good and the special effects used are excellent. Presented at 1.85:1 non-anamorphic, Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subs. There is practically no dialogue in the film.

Trailer (1:44)
In case you missed it on the first disc, the trailer is included again on disc 2.

Teaser (0:42)
A shorter version of the trailer, also presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic.

Poster Gallery (20)
A large poster gallery shows samples, tests and the final version of the movie poster – most of them incorporating the ladybird image somewhere. The film seemed to go through a range of titles also - Crimes Against Nature, The Blood of the Earth, and L’Herborist.

Océan Catalogue
Trailers are shown for 8 Océan titles, including In The Mood For Love and Samsara.

DVD Rom material
Wallpaper for your PC, a screensaver and internet links are provided in the DVD-Rom material.

TF1 Trailers
My edition of the DVD came with a bonus DVD of 49 TF1 Video trailers. There's not much of interest here apart from trailers to a few HG Clouzot films. Much of the catalogue seems to be made up of poorly animated children's cartoons or typically French TV candid camera style gag shows.

The real horror of course took place off-screen when soon after the making of the film, Depardieu had a leg amputated when complications arose from a reportedly botched operation after an earlier bike accident. It would be a shame if this ended the actor’s career, because although Le Pharmacien de Garde isn’t the best example of their work, Depardieu under the direction of Perez in his directorial debut, Peau d’Ange, showed that the pair could produce good mainstream and genre work in French cinema. Half-horror and half-comedy, Le Pharmacien de Garde ends up never really satisfying on either level, but there is still a lot of fun to be derived from the film and this French DVD set is hard to fault.

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