36 Quai des Orfèvres (36th Precinct on DVD)


Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 
36 Quai des Orfèvres
Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 

When CID chief Robert Mancini (André Dussollier, "A Very Long Engagement") announces his retirement, he makes it clear to BRI head Léo Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil, "The Closet," "Apres Vous") that he is his favored successor.  Rival BRB head Denis Klein (Gérard Depardieu, "The Closet") is viewed as a bureaucratic ladder climber and little liked by Vrinks men, but Léo has strange and long held ties to his old colleague.  The capture of a brash heist group known as the van gang is made top priority by Mancini's superiors, with whoever brings them down all but assured of the chief's post.  Vrinks quickly assumes the lead, but the black compromise he was forced to make is sniffed out by Klein and the two men drag each other to the lowest depths in pursuit of the head office at "36 Quai des Orfèvres."

Laura:
Former police officer Olivier Marchal has directed a beautifully acted, shot and scored cop thriller that is a very worthy addition to France's near domination of the genre. This film was nominated for eight Césars, the French Oscar equivalent, and except for the story's inability to surprise, until the very end at least, "36 Quai des Orfèvres" scores on every front.

The film opens with a bit of effective cross cutting (editing by Achdé).  As Vrinks' men boisterously celebrate the imminent retirement of his right hand man Eddy (Daniel Duval, "The Time of the Wolf"), presenting him with a stolen street sign and shooting up the restaurant bar in pursuit of a mouse, three thugs intimidate and beat a club owner. The crime line is blurred, the former group only less guilty due to degree and intent.  That club owner turns out to be Manou Berliner (Mylène Demongeot, "Bonjour Tristesse," "Red Lights"), a former prostitute and dear friend of Léo's.  He assures Manou's safety by all but killing a man with the assistance of two of his crew.

If Léo wields a vigilante styling of the law, Denis initially seems more by the book. He's introduced at the Van Gang's latest crime scene along with his protege Ève Verhagen (Catherine Marchal), a younger blonde deemed his 'private property' by Vrinks's men. After Léo follows a bum lead on the heist from Manou (in which the suspect, Dragan (Jo Prestia, "Irreversible's" rapist), takes himself and Léo out the window rather than go into custody) he meets late night one on one with Klein in a bar.  Klein's upset that Léo didn't tell him about the tip, noting 'It takes two to tango.' 'We're not dancing anymore,' retorts Léo

This move which will come to haunt him when one of Klein's snitches turns up dead.  Moving out of his arena and into Léo's, Denis questions an obvious suspect, Hugo Silien (Roschdy Zem, "Merci Docteur Rey"), a man the victim sent to jail who happened to be on jail leave at the time of the hit.  But Silien has an alibi - he was with a cop at the time - Léo Vrinks.

"36 Quai des Orfèvres" was written by Dominique Loiseau, Frank Mancuso, Olivier Marchal and Julien Rappeneau, partially based on some of the screenwriters' experiences.  The story is a continual contrast of dark upon dark - cops and criminals, good cops and bad cops - peopled with rich, complex characters.  The hierarchy, of course, is topped by Vrinks and Klein, and the crux of their contention is a woman - Camille Vrinks (Valeria Golino, "Frida," "Respiro") - who is currently still madly in love with her husband but was at one time involved with Klein.  Klein has withdrawn from his own wife, Hélène (Anne Consigny) and treats his mistress coldly - he's drowned heartbreak in his career.  The writers skillfully incorporate the undercurrent of an old friendship along with the present rivalry and Léo's subtle recognition of his old friend's loss.

Marchal expertly directs a huge ensemble cast with even tiny roles, such as his own as Christo, Manou's ex-con boyfriend, making an impression. It is particularly gratifying to see the two giants of French cinema actors, Gérard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil, acting together in a feature film for only the fifth time since 1986's "Jean de Florette" (the two actors have appeared in a joint total of about two hundred films, excluding television).  Both are excellent, with Auteuil's arc moving from dark to light (actually darker to lighter gray) and crisscrossing with Depardieu's opposing one. As the CID head, André Dussollier gradually exposes his own level of corruption while Francis Renaud ("The Code," "Crimson Rivers 2") represents a weird sort of moral compass as Vrinks' man Titi Brasseur.  Auteuil's daughter Aurore ("Intimate Strangers," "Nathalie") plays Vrinks' daughter Lola, who ages from eleven to seventeen, in the latter part of the film.

Widescreen cinematography by Denis Rouden, veteran of seven "Emmanuelle" films, is crisp, featuring lots of rich blacks and cool blues.  Stunt choreography is notable, from that swan dive out the window to a terrifically executed shootout.   Original music by Erwann Kermorvant and Axelle Renoir starts off as an effective, if stock genre riff then keeps evolving with the mood of the story, with a haunting female voice becoming a beautiful grace note.

With all the complex goings on in this film though, it is really no surprise where it's main two characters end up, but Marchal ensures that the ride is exhilarating nonetheless.  "36 Quai des Orfèvres" is a slick, top notch piece of genre filmmaking.

B+

The DVD:
Six years after seeing this gem at Boston's Museum of Fine Art's 10th French Film Festival in 2005, Palisades Tartan makes it available on DVD and it's a real treat to see it again.  Titled "36th Precinct" for the U.S. market, the film could stand comparisons to "Heat," its Auteuil/Depardieu pair-up as iconic in French film as DeNiro and Pacino's was then.  This time around, I could see the influence of "The Godfather" in Rouden's cinematography only to discover in the disk's Director's Interview that that was the film he had everyone watch numerous times during preproduction.  The film is letterboxed to its theatrical aspect ratio and features sensible subtitles, large enough to read easily without obscuring too much of the screen, white letters outlined in black to keep them from disappearing when backgrounds brighten.

Unfortunately, the subtitles are a bit problematic in the first and best of the disk's bonus features, a Making Of featurette which is framed so that the bottom of the letters get cropped - it's still legible, but obviously not right.  Still the featurette is crammed full of interesting information, such as how autobiographical the tale is to Marchal (a lot closer to the truth than I'd initially thought), and such filmmaking challenges as the stunt art of beating up an older woman for best cinematic effect.  One can see how the director gets his star, Depardieu, to hang onto a nice bit of emotion the actor's thrown in from one take to the next and chuckle at his frustration over a misfiring stunt gun.

The Director's Interview is a series of soundbites edited together with titled cards in between which pose the questions.  Subtitles are properly framed.  The interview focuses on story development and Marchal's experience meeting each of his lead actors for the first time.  Weapons Selection is mostly boys being boys as Marchal and his crew pick out and play with weapons.  Marchal becomes enamored of one because it will make Depardieu 'look cool,' noting that 'I've nailed more as a cop than as an actor' before sheepishly realizing he's just made a faux pas in front of a running camera.  Wardrobe Run-Through is a fly-on-the-wall piece where we see Golina lobby for using her own hair vs. all the wigs she's asked to try on, the young actress who will play Lola charmingly calmed by on-screen dad Auteuil and other cast members meeting each other as they try on different clothes and accessories.  Bonus features also include both the theatrical and teaser trailers for the film under its original, French title as well as trailers for three upcoming Tartan Palisades releases ("The First Beautiful Thing," Algerian Foreign Language nominee "Outside the Law" and "All That I Love").

One wishes that there had been actual interviews with both Depardieu and Auteuil, especially together, although one gets an idea of them from Marchal's stories and the wardrobe extra.  All in all, the DVD has some unusual bonus bits, but its main strength is the terrific presentation of a film which might otherwise have slid into oblivion for the U.S. market.

B+

Robin:
A string of murderous armored car robberies have plagued the Paris police for 18 months. Two ranking cops, Leo Vrinks (Daniel Autiel) and Denis Klein (Gerard Depardieu), are ordered to find the gang of deadly hijackers and the carrot of promotion to Chief is dangled before the two men. This temptation causes the lines to blur between right and wrong in “36th Precinct.”

This taut 2004 police thriller is the second work by real life cop-turned-actor-director Olivier Marchal and, with his veteran stars, Auteil and Depardieu, creates a fast-building crime drama that keeps you guessing just who the bad guy (or guys) is. It explores the underbelly of police corruption where twisting the rules may be illegal for the average citizen but is OK for the cops. It is a violent and bloody film with the action done in your face, making “36th Precinct” another fine entry in the pantheon of the best of French crime cinema.

The DVD set lacks a commentary track – one with Marchal, Autiel and Depardieu could have been a great way to hear about the film while watching the drama. However, the extras that are included are first rate. The “Making of…” feature gives a wealth of behind-the-scenes coverage, including an interview with the director; a things-go-wrong chapter where the stunt bullies fail during a crucial scene; deleted scenes that show the ends filmmakers will go to shoot a complex action piece only to eliminate it from the finished work. My only complaint is that it should have been letter boxed. The TV aspect ratio cuts off the lower half of the subtitles.
The “Weapons Selection” extra is a gun lovers dream with the film’s weapons consultants breaking out all sorts of assault rifles, pistols and submachine guns for the actors to try out. This extra is really for gun nuts only. Luckily, I am one.

In an extended interview with the director, Marchal talks about his life as a cop; his transition to acting and directing; the veracity of his action scenes – Marchal says the big shoot out in the film is based on real events. Sympathetically, he says, of his femme actors, that “the women were the only ray of light in the film.”

There is a “Wardrobe Run Through” piece that has the costume designers meeting and greeting the film’s stars and outfitting them for the each of the scenes. Then, they are off to the hairdressers and makeup artists – all of this with director Marchal omnipresent throughout, guiding the process to his satisfaction. Finally, there is the theatrical trailer and a 30 second teaser to round things out. I give the film an A- and the DVD and extras a B+.
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