The world’s first completed theatrical feature shot entirely on hi-def digital video, 19th-century crime thriller “Vidocq” is a nonstop barrage of visual bravado and frenetic editing in the service of an overblown and strangely hollow story. Eagerly awaited venture — a pricey first feature from French f/x maestro Pitof, who also covered second unit and visual effects on “Alien Resurrection” — left most local critics unimpressed but opened gangbusters Sept. 19. Foreign sales have been brisk for the razzle-dazzle enterprise.
In the end, the story seems almost beside the point compared with the film’s aggressively customized appearance: Cesar-winning and Oscar-nominated production designer Jean Rabasse went to town with Pitof’s request to build ” ‘Seven’ in 1830.” Marc Caro, who co-created “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children,” came up with sketches to guide the casting and costuming of characters and worked with Rabasse to turn actual French locations into digital putty, reworked to the nth degree. Pitof further ups the ante with digital depth — tacking on perspectives as much as five times longer and deeper than the “real” locations.
Helmer claims to have been inspired by the paintings of 19th-century artist Gustave Moreau, but someone who didn’t know better would assume he’d been inspired by the hues of bodily fluids: Pic’s color scheme is aggressively yucky. In fact, the whole production, originated 100% via HD-CAM 24P, looks as ugly as sin — but since sin is the subject at hand, it could be argued that hi-def video was the ideal aesthetic choice.
The real Vidocq was a larger-than-life character and master of disguise with prodigious appetites who is credited with countless crime-fighting innovations, including the world’s first private detective agency. An alleged criminal who escaped from prison, he became a top-ranking Paris policeman as chief of the Surete. The personality and adventures of Vidocq (1775-1857) inspired authors from Victor Hugo to Balzac, and many French films have starred or incorporated him, starting with a 1922 silent serial. Claude Brasseur played him in a popular French TV series of the ’70s.
Gerard Depardieu, who somewhat resembles etchings of the real man, is essential to the enterprise: Were it not for his commanding voice and bulk, pic’s opening fight would border on dull as well as derivative, poorly staged and annoyingly edited. After striding through a Paris glass-blowing firm, Vidocq is seen battling for his life around a flaming pit. His adversary is the Alchemist, a seemingly superhuman student of the martial and demonic arts who wears a hooded black robe and whose face is a deluxe funhouse mirror. Legend contends that anyone who sees his reflection in its surface will lose both life and soul.
Hanging on by his fingernails before falling into the inferno, Vidocq says, “Wait! If I’m going to die, I want to see your face.” He takes one look and drops to his death. With the title character dispensed with in the opening seg, enter Etienne Boisset (Guillaume Canet), a callow but persistent journalist who tells Vidocq’s surviving business partner, the pirate-like Nimier (Moussa Maaskri), that he had the great man’s permission to write his biography.
In the “Citizen Kane” tradition, Boisset interviews those who knew Vidocq. With few exceptions, Vidocq’s cronies meet horrible deaths after sharing their memories.
Nimier launches one of several flashbacks by saying it all started when a number of important men, including an arms manufacturer and a chemist, were struck by freak lightning bolts and burst into flames. Police bigwig Lautrennes (Andre Dussollier, managing to hold on to his dignity throughout), fired Vidocq two years prior, but enlists his help because “the monarchy is threatened.”
The unsolved murders are chalked up to the monstrous Alchemist, who is said to roam the Temple quarter. Opium dens, kidnapped virgins and threatening letters written in blood are among the clues as Vidocq investigates the deaths by lightning in the recent past and Boisset pursues his story in the present.
Preah (Ines Sastre), a dancer and courtesan, knew Vidocq well and is herself adept at disguise. The alluringly acrobatic dance number that the fetching Spanish star rehearsed for five months proves to be one of pic’s fleeting highlights.
Co-scripter Jean-Christophe Grange recently had his second book, “The Crimson Rivers,” adapted for the screen by Mathieu Kassovitz. “Vidocq” suffers from the same inflated self-importance and almost arbitrary grandeur, whereby a halfway decent premise devolves into borderline idiocy. Composer Bruno Coulais uses touches of Mozart and Vivaldi to propel his score.