Dark Portals, the Vidocq movie

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 6, 2013

Though none have really approached “major motion picture” status, three or four of the great detectives profiled in Brilliant Deduction have been the subject of at least one TV or film production. Given that most of these have been relatively obscure, I didn’t get around to viewing any for my book, but I have had it in mind to look for some of them and make notes here on the blog. Top of the list was Vidocq, a 2001 French production released to anglophone markets (only on DVD, so far as I know) as Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidocq. Recently I finally got hold of a copy and gave it a go.

Short version: I enjoyed it, and would probably watch it again, but it’s strange.

I suppose I should begin further comments from the perspective of my book, i.e. a nonfiction examination of the great detective. From that perspective there isn’t a lot to say, though; I’ll get to what the film is in a bit, but it is not really about the historical Vidocq to any considerable extent. The plot involves a series of murders in Paris, in 1830, investigated by a detective named Eugène François Vidocq. And the filmmakers were clearly aware of Vidocq’s real history; Gerard Depardieu manages to look more than a little like the few extant portraits of Vidocq (though the leather coat seemed odd, a bit more suited to The Matrix one might think, of which more later). And occasional hints of Vidocq’s real life and career turn up as asides: his origins as an informer; his quarrels with the prefecture of police; his experiments with blood chemistry, and paper. The filmmakers obviously had information about Vidocq.

They just didn’t do much with it. All of the details of the real Vidocq’s history are incidental; the character’s significance is never directly explained and the movie could easily have been made with no reference to Vidocq whatsoever. I’m not sure why it wasn’t, though IMDb’s trivia offers a hint, at least. It suggests that “The original on-spec screenplay by David Fakrikian featured Vidocq[‘s] origin, adapted from the 1967 TV series by Georges Neveux and Marcel Bluwal … but was rejected when the producers failed to obtain the TV series rights.” Apparently there was a 1967 television series about Vidocq, then, and apparently this somehow locked up the rights to the 19th-century Memoirs of a real historical person. Right, then. Anyway, that’s a little about what Dark Portals is not, and why; now for what it is and why I liked it anyway…

Dark Portals is difficult to describe, frankly. A basic plot description isn’t much help. “A journalist pursues the missing detective Vidocq through 1830 Paris, while Vidocq in turn pursues a sinister figure known as The Alchemist, whom he suspects is behind a series of high-profile murders” is accurate, in some sense, but I think it inevitably gives the impression of something rather dopey. Which, in other hands, it probably would be. Yet Dark Portals is not an American film made for American audiences. It is in fact, at least I would describe it as, a strange, surrealist work of art.

I’ve reached for various analogies for Dark Portals, and none is really perfect; it isn’t entirely like anything I’ve seen before. Among the the imperfect comparisons I’ve come up with… it’s a bit like the 1990s television series Millennium, made as a European period film. It’s faintly steampunk; though no truly anachronistic gadgetry turns up, it gives a steampunk-esque impression of modern concepts at work in a dreamworld 19th century. Visually, the color and lighting and motion and camerawork seem to draw from a range of influences: I was reminded of video game worlds like Myst, and stylized Asian films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as Hollywood films, in a strange way. Dark Portals is something like the mirrored mask of its villain, I think, in that it seems like the aesthetic of modern Hollywood action dramas reflected back at us in a wondrous, distorted form, from Europe. Personally I think it’s an improvement, or at the least a welcome novelty.

It isn’t perfect, certainly. The plot is just shy of being nonsense; in some ways it also reminds me of Shekhar Kapur’s two films about Elizabeth I, particularly the second of them. In neither case do events add up to a coherent plot, and in neither case am I convinced that this is necessary or helpful as opposed to being simply weak writing/editing. That said, both films are visually enthralling, and not exclusively because of Cate Blanchett. And individual scenes are splendid even if they don’t form a fully satisfying whole. Minus Cate, the same may be said of Dark Portals. It’s odd, and quirky. If one wants a biography of Vidocq, look elsewhere. If one wants a tidy and convincing plot judged by American standards, look elsewhere.

But if one wants something weird and beautiful and different… this just may be the ticket.

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