There really was a Vidocq, and he really was an ex-petty criminal who reformed the Parisian police force and founded most of modern criminological technique. But Vidocq, a dizzying and sometimes overwhelming fantasy thriller, isn't about the real Vidocq — it uses his legend (he's worshipped as a national hero in France) as the springboard for a story that's like a live-action version of the manga Steam Detectives.
Vidocq is the first feature film directed by Pitof, a special-effects supervisor for many films (including Alien Resurrection), and like other FX men who take the helm, he has infused it with cutting-edge filmmaking technology. The entire film was shot using Sony's 24P digital video system (which, regrettably, makes it a bit murky and difficult to follow at times), but also uses digitally-generated landscapes and backdrops as a way to further the feeling of being in late 19th-century Paris. A patina of grime and sweat seems to've been smeared over everything and everyone, and the streets are clogged with people and trash. In other words, it's probably like the real Paris of the time, and that lends the movie a sense of claustrophobic urgency.
Vidocq (Gerard Depardieu), now retired from the police force, is a private investigator on the trail of a mysterious cloaked figure with a mirrored mask. The film's opening scenes show him cornering this nemesis, named "the Alchemist," in a glassblower's factory, and after a violent struggle Vidocq plummets to his death into a firepit. With Vidocq dead and the newspapers screaming about it from the rooftops, his official biographer Etienne (Guillaume Canet) starts turning over every rock he can get his hands on to find out what happened. He is helped, reluctantly, by Vidocq's sweaty, gypsy-like partner Nimier (Moussa Maaskri), who suspects Etienne of having ulterior motives, but is soon spilling the story in flashbacks to the younger man.
The movie breaks down into two timestreams: past and present. In the past, Vidocq and his cronies are looking into a series of mysterious assassinations, apparently committed by controlling lightning. Three men with only a tenuous connection to each other are all dead, but soon Vidocq discovers (or is it "discovered"?) the connection was more than tenuous, and they were involved in some rancidly perverse things that even men in high society weren't supposed to be dabbling in. He also falls in with an exotic dancer, Preah (Ines Sastre), who may or may not have been a dupe for the bad guys, and learns amazing things about her dress in the process (to say nothing of what's in it).
In the present, Etienne assembles the broken pieces left behind by Vidocq after his death and makes one eyebrow-singing discovery after another. His quest takes him through what feels like every gutter dive, back-room whorehouse, and drug den in all of Paris. (I liked how the movie shows that anyone who thinks there was no such thing as sex on anyone's mind before the 1960s simply hasn't read their history.) Pitof's camera is always in motion, circling restlessly or jamming in tight for unsettling close-ups (which unfortunately look a little too comical at times), or sweeping wide to show a seething Parisian skyline under churning clouds.
Even though a movie like this is ruled by the stunts, scenery and effects, there's a game cast here. Depardieu is his usual tough-guy self, although with an intellectual edge that's usually blunted in many of his films. The rest of the actors are competent to engaging, but they're at the mercy of a story which is primarily a thrill machine, a way of making use of intriguing elements in various eye-popping ways. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you: the scene where Vidocq confronts the Alchemist in his own lair is sensational, with set design that's like a cross between Phantom of the Opera and Hellraiser.
Where the film ultimately goes with its various elements, I will not say, but I will only admit that there is a turn into the realm of the openly fantastic that may not sit well with everyone. I didn't have as big a problem with it — once you accept that the movie's a fantasy, almost anything's possible, right? But people expecting a less out-there explanation for what goes on are going to be whiplashed when they see the ending. That, or they'll be doubly amused, come to think of it.
More films are being shot on digital now that the costs have come down and the hardware is both reliable and available. The results are a little mixed, though. Vidocq has great visionary ambition, but the images often look blurry, or don't register with the eyes with the intensity that film captures so well. I know that a lot of this may be due to the fact that DV is still so new, but the very experimentalism of the format is not always going to work in a movie's favor. When it does work, though — as when the camera sweeps around and around the city — it's awe-inspiring.
The first time I saw the film, it didn't click for me, possibly because I had finished reading a book about Vidocq's life and assumed this was a halfway factual film. It's not, and once I got that out of my head, I had a grand time. It's eye-filling and fanciful in the same way The Brotherhood of the Wolf was, showing us a past that never really existed while freely borrowing from history for many of its inspirations. See the movie, savor it for what it is, but I couldn't help but think a movie of this energy about the real Vidocq would be twice as interesting.