With recent crime/suspense exports like Empire of the Wolves (L'Empire des loups), Spy Bound (Agents secrets), Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse, Red Lights (Feux rouges), Who Killed Bambi? (Qui a tué Bambi?), and The Red Siren (La Sirène rouge) giving English language audiences the impression that France makes glossy, attractive, but incoherent and emotionally vapid thrillers - a problem partially the fault of North American distributors searching solely for films with explosions, nudity, violence, or expressive 'scope cinematography for home theatre buffs - 36 Quai des Orfèvres offers a crime film with all the key elements much of the aforementioned lack, plus a storyline that echoes the masculine, sometimes operatic drama of Asian crime thrillers, and the tragic innocent man/seething revenge tales of classic French literature (even though Auteuil's character is plainly gray than virginal white - soiled with his own tally of bad behaviour and blood - he qualifies in the ruined-man-going-for-broke-persona).
Orfèvres can't really be compared to Michael Mann's Heat, but it does share some key elements: the relationships and bonding between males and their stoic existence on opposing sides of the cop/criminal border (much grayer, though, in co-writer/director Olivier Marchal's film); the importance and consequences of loyalty; and females subjugated as background wives & daughters, caught in testosterone-led conflicts (a problem awfully prominent even in Mann's best films).
Revenge is the key motivator between the various battling factions in Orfèvres, and Marchal avoids the more familiar orgiastic, self-conscious style of recent French thrillers, and, perhaps taking a nod from Mann, saves his energetic visuals for the kinetic action scenes, and lets the inter-personal dramas unfold at a natural pace without hacking up the film's excellent underplayed performances.
Clever montages also recap prior events and private vantage points, and Marchal uses simple cutaways with the assumption that viewers can stitch together past relationships from Daniel Auteuil's past without painfully obvious dialogue. The film's structure is also a bit more novel: the first hour's a somber flashback, while the second deals with the execution and integration of three vicious revenge threads: justice for a wronged man, just desserts for an amoral career usurper, and unstoppable criminal revenge (the weaker of the three storylines).
The film's main flaws - a gradually cloying, thematically repetitive score from Erwann Kermorvant and Axelle Renoir - and unmemorable female roles - are counterbalanced by Marchal's skilled direction, and a decent script that, in spite of being written by four credited writers, satisfyingly and logically sets up and resolves the film's primary conflicts.
Seville 's DVD boasts fairly smooth PAL to NTSC conversion of Orfèvres, and ports over some of the un-subtitled, French-only extras from the French two-disc PAL DVD. That beefy edition offers an additional director commentary on Disc 1, and on Disc 2 there's an 80 min. doc apparently on Marchal (titled "Qui veut la peau d'Olivier Marchal?"), and a 17 min. costume fitting session with the actors.
The "Making Of" featurette is really just an overlong collection of moments shot during filming, with raw sound elements (some quite distorted) still in their checker boarded state, as dialogue sometimes flips between left and right channels. (The stereo score extracts soften the primal audio mix, but smother Marchal's closing comments as well.) The behind-the-scenes vignettes are bracketed by transition bumpers using scripts pages, storyboards, and a few film clips, but at nearly a half hour in length, it's a dry, slow-going experience.
The archived interviews are raw takes from the electronic press kit (EPK), and consist of replies intercut with short black bursts of leader. Former actor-turned-director Marchal mentions his experience as a former police officer, his strong desire to make the film, working with two of France 's acting icons - Gerard Depardieu & Daniel Auteuil - and favourite moments in the finished film.
Valeria Golino offers familiar opinions on working with co-star Auteuil, the specificity of director Marchal, and wan distillations of her weak character. Auteuil 's segments are more interesting for addressing the 'auteurial' needs and cathartic benefits of directing, avoiding the pitfalls of playing a genre caricature, and an affirmation of Marchal's standing as a 'generous' director.
Because none of the segments are captioned with either posed questions nor identifying text for the interviewees, one must assume the fourth subject is either a co-writer or co-producer, who briefly mentions the script's inspiration from a real-life event that Marchal had wanted to make for some time.
"A Choice of Arms" is a rather surreal, fast-paced meeting between Marchal and weapons experts - basically 13 minutes of rapid banter, blowing through the pros & cons of various guns, with each man trying out the deadly toys.
Seville 's menu layout - and all of the extras - is also in French, so allophones might be able to set up the English subtitles and chapters, but they'll lose out on the extras. This is a familiar let-down that adversely affected DVD editions of Ma Vie en Cinemascope and Spy Bound (both from Alliance-Atlantis), or had American distributors, at the very least, placing an English dub track over French-language featurettes (as in Fox' Transporter 2 ) that often missed nuances to keep up with rapid-fire French banter.
Perhaps a greater frustration for fans of recent French thrillers lies in the French-only extras that seem to be designed solely for domestic release, leaving bare bones releases for the remaining markets. Admittedly it's a shaky quibble when compared with the multitude of English-only special features for English language films, but one could argue that the value of these European films on sometimes pricy Region 1 releases would have more weight (and greater market appeal) if those extras with genuinely informative content were either subtitled, or given an optional English dub track.
Seville's DVD is still a welcome release, and perhaps Marchal's 2002 debut feature, Gangsters, co-starring Anne Parillaud, might get a shot at a Region 1 release, as well.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan