36 Quai des Orfèvres Review
Let's get one thing straight: contrary to popular opinion, and the remarks that the distributor has made on the DVD cover, this is by no means "the French version of Heat." Whereas Michael Mann's crime thriller focused on the bonds between criminals and their relationships with the men chasing them down, Olivier Marchal's 36 Quai des Orfèvres has a lot more in common with a Shakespearean tragedy than Mann's seminal '90s classic. It might begin with a series of deadly armed robberies that France's elite police force – based at 36 Quai des Orfèvres in Paris, the equivalent to our Scotland Yard – are tasked with investigating, yet it soon moves into much broodier and darker territory when a power struggle erupts between the two leading flics – Daniel Auteuil's Vrinks and Gerard Depardieu's Klein. Both are police officers at the top of their game, a mere movement away from the coveted position of Chief of Police; whoever sows up this case is rewarded with such a promotion. But, as Marchal is keen to point out, power does indeed corrupt and history has a nasty habit of catching up with those who play fast and loose with people and their emotions.
36 Quai des Orfèvres is a crime thriller, don't get me wrong; the action set-pieces are superb and there is indeed an element of "cops vs. robbers". But, refreshingly, it is a crime thriller that takes its time to establish and subsequently deconstruct the leading characters, allowing the audience to begin to appreciate the struggles and sacrifices that people in this profession have to make on a daily basis. Fortunately there is a large degree of realism to the proceedings, which comes at a direct result of Marchal's previous career in the police force – he served in the elite counter-terror section for a number of years before quitting in 1992 to pursue a career in acting and, later, writing and directing. He has said in interviews that two-thirds of the film is strictly (auto?)biographical and it certainly shows, ranging from the inter-departmental politics to the marital problems that result at home. Sure, Michael Mann did indeed touch on this theme with Heat, but whilst he was clearly trying to make a polemic statement about how morality becomes blurred in a world of crime, even between cops and criminals, Marchal is instead interested in giving a man everything and then watching him self-destruct.
Such big themes require big actors and it comes as no surprise that Auteuil and Depardieu, long considered as true greats of French cinema, are on top form here. Auteuil's Vrinks is an introspective, self-condescending man who is aware of his faults but tries hard to push them away; Depardieu's Klein, meanwhile, is a huge, imposing Gaul whose sense of self-righteousness threatens to consume him. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the writing doesn't descend to cliché or caricature when portraying this dichotomy, and whilst the audiences are not encouraged to take sides in this battle since the narrative is almost exclusively presented through Auteuil's point of view, there is certainly room to question Vrinks' actions.
It would be somewhat simplistic to say that at the heart of this film lies the mantra that power corrupts. Instead, I think it is important to understand that with this film, Marchal is seizing the opportunity to ask questions about subjectivity, split-second decisions, whether the end ever justifies the means and if a police officer can legitimately claim to be above the law since, after all, he is the law. A lot of passion, knowledge and understanding have been poured into the screenplay and it is fitting that the end product is entertaining and wholesome. Apparently 36 Quai des Orfèvres was the most expensive French film to date and, as a result, everything looks great. The photography neatly draws attention to the film's moralistic dilemmas without becoming melodramatic, the dialogue is sharp and the conclusion is satisfying. Just like in Brian De Palma's Scarface, the decline of one man is so captivating that the audience will find it hard to take their eyes off the screen.
Released by Tartan three and a half months after the film's UK theatrical release, and almost two years since it was first released in French cinemas, this disc contains an exclusive interview which may be of interest to collectors. The menus are well designed and easy to navigate, whilst optional English subtitles are understandably included during the main feature.
The film receives a very good video transfer, presented in the correct aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which has been anamorphically enhanced. Being a modern film made on a big budget, there is no visible print damage and aside from a few signs of digital compression – only during fast-moving shots and a few quick pans – the image is of a high quality. Furthermore, the film receives an excellent DTS soundtrack, alongside a similarly-impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which should test out your surround-sound setup when the gunshots start pinging around the living room. Frustratingly, a Dolby Digital 2.0 dub, in English, is also included; this disc space should have been used to include more extras or improve the video quality further. Although it seems pointless to comment on the quality of a dub, it has to be said that Daniel Auteuil's dubbed voice sounds absolutely ridiculous – it's totally out of place for the character.
An illuminating conversation with writer/director Olivier Marchal and a fairly brief making-of featurette form the main backbone to the extra features. Both are well worth watching and begin to unravel the film's complex production process, but they don't go into enough detail – especially since there is no audio commentary included, contrary to what Tartan stated on the press release for this DVD. Two incidental featurettes – concerning costumes and weapons – are also present, which are interesting if slightly tedious.
Proof that the French film industry can make what most American audiences gobble down with gusto – and do it better than the Yanks – is a refreshing thing to see. 36 Quai des Orfèvres is a hugely entertaining film with a contemplative backbone, two fine performances from Auteuil and Depardieu and some brutal action sequences. Highly recommended.