Monday, June 05, 2006

36 QUAI DES ORFEVRES is a flawed French cop thriller

36 QUAI DES ORFÈVRES starts off as a slick, captivating hard-boiled cop thriller. The opening half hour is filled with dark, moody shots of motorcycles and cars screeching on wet Parisian highways and hard-core violence in basement rooms of smoke-filled nightclubs. Paris has never looked more sinister. The plot and characters are similarly intriguing, operating on a sliding scale of ethics. There are no heroes and villains – just a bunch of gangsters, molls and cops who are more or less in it up to their ears. However, grotesquely, there is honour among thieves, and justice is meted out summarily and in extreme terms. The movie is all the more gripping because it is underpinned by some gritty performances. The ever-brilliant Daniel Auteuil plays against type in his portrayal of a cop, Leo Vrinks. Vrinks has brutal strength and a mission to bring in a wanted gang of thieves by any means necessary. Gérard Depardieu also gives an outstanding performance as another cop, Denis Klein with an even hazier grip on the code of ethics. It is one of his quieter, more subtle performances – a welcome change from the Cheery-Gaul-For-Hire act that he usually subjects us to in his English-language films. Both are in competition to take over from their boss, played by André Dussollier, who seems to specialise in playing ultra-smooth amoral men.

As the complex plot unfolds we see both Vrinks and Klein bring in the gang of thieves in a set-piece shoot-out around half way through the movie. This sets in train a chain of events that are catastrophic for both cops and hoods. The nihilistic message of the movie seems to be that we cannot escape the cycle of violence. The set-piece shoot-out also sets off a chain of directorial choices that undermine the movie to the point where I wanted to leave the cinema. The project descends from hard-boiled thriller into soupy melodrama. You know the kind of the thing. One guy is shot and the director pans to his best friend who is now seen in slow motion shouting “Noooooooooh!” with a full-on sweeping orchestral score hamming up the moment for all it’s worth. This sort of lazy use of camerawork and score occurs with increasing frequency as the movie winds down to the point where it feels like a glossy version of a TV melodrama. And then the movie ends with all ends neatly tied up in incredible fashion, and a nagging feeling that the whole story rests on a massive plot hole. (If you want to know what I think that is, email me.) Despite my deep dissatisfaction about the second half of the movie, I still think 36 QUAI DES ORFÈVRES is a decent thriller – but perhaps one for DVD rather than the cinema. (And by the way, the significance of the title is that this is apparently the address of the French version of Scotland Yard - the HQ of the police.)

36 QUAI DES ORFÈVRES was originally released in France in winter 2004 and is currently on release in the UK.

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