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Friday, Dec. 15, 2006

French get a macho makeover

Macho is not a concept that appears all that often in French films as love stories have traditionally been more their forte. But "36 Quai des Orfevres" (released in Japan as "Aruiwa Uragiri to iu Nano Inu") fairly reeks of maleness and not much else. It may as well come with a tag line like: "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."

36 Quai des Orfevres Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Daniel Auteuil (left) and Gerard Depardieu in "36 Quai des Orfevres" (C) 1996-98 ACCUSOFT INC., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Director: Olivier Marchal
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: French
Opens Dec. 16, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

In it, France's resident acting extraordinaires Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil swear and sweat and grab each other by their (leather) lapels in a struggle for male dominance and supremacy. And the backdrop being Macho Command -- aka Police Headquarters (the title refers to its address) -- in Paris, they and the other cast members light up ad nauseum, perpetually squint in the thick haze of smoke and take long swigs from whiskey flasks at 10 in the morning. By way of entertainment, they shoot at wandering mice in a restaurant, miss, and shards of glass fly about. No one apologizes. Compared to their increasingly well-behaved and sanitized counterparts in Hollywood, these gents seem to be having all the fun.

The director, Olivier Marchal, has a unique background: He was an officer in the Versailles police at the same time that he studied acting in the Paris Conservatoire. After quitting the force, Marchal began acting in earnest, mostly in cop roles, and five years ago slid behind the camera to direct his first feature film "Gangsters."

"36" is his breakthrough work -- inspired by a real-life police scandal that rocked France. But it's clear that no matter how corrupt and violent French cops may have become, Marchal retains a deep and abiding sympathy for his former colleagues. (In the production notes, he says that policemen comprise some of the saddest and most tragic people on Earth.) His insider knowledge of police work is intimate and detailed, his ear for police lingo/conversation pitch-perfect.

Unlike De Niro or Eddie Murphy, the cops in "36" never wisecrack or indulge in witty banter, most often being too dazed from fatigue or filled with tension to engage in much verbal communication. They say what needs to be said and not a word more. And then they light another cigarette.

Auteuil plays veteran cop Leo Vrinks, a man dedicated to the job, his team and his family. Vrinks' nemesis is his colleague Denis Klein (Depardieu), whose insatiable thirst for power within the force has earned him a grudging respect from his superiors but has alienated everyone else, including his wife Helene (Anne Consigny), who won't even sit at the same table. Klein and Vrinks also have some bad personal history; years ago they competed for the affections of the beautiful Camilla (Valeria Golino) and Vrinks won. Now he lives with her in a trim little suburban home with their teenage daughter, and after a hard-week's work husband and wife still take showers together.

The comparison to Klein's frosty marriage is painful, but he's got other things on his mind -- namely a vicious gang of thugs terrorizing Paris and a promotion to the top rank promised to the cop that catches them.

Klein is ruthless and unscrupulous in his efforts to do this, and in the process cooks up a scandal to take down Vrinks. Arrested and incarcerated, Vrinks is powerless to stop Klein's evil-doings, and it's a solid seven years before he gets out to attempt to finally even up the score.

There's not much in the story that can't be predicted, and the film falters in the places it goes for noirish suspense twists. It's not the plot so much as the texture of the visuals, the amazing performances and the depictions of the day-to-day workloads of Vrinks and Klein that make "36" so thoroughly compelling.

In one scene, Vrinks and his team go to arrest an arms dealer who is relaxing in his girlfriend's apartment with their small daughter. Vrinks busts the door open and tells the man to freeze; the dealer quietly asks if he can kiss his daughter goodbye. Vrinks assents, the dealer embraces his daughter, then pounces on Vrinks and tears through the fifth floor apartment window in a murder-suicide attempt. Vrinks, however, manages to land atop the body of the dealer and survives. Later that day he goes home and says nothing to his wife; for Vrinks and many policemen like him, incidents like that apparently happen on a daily basis, and the quicker they forget the horror the better. The sight of Vrinks with his face buried in the dead dealer's chest, blinking and panting but managing to shout "I'm all right" to his men calling from above, is definitely one of the prime reasons to see "36."

Speaking of faces, cinematographer Denis Rouden pulls no punches in highlighting all the creases, crags and crevasses that make up the faces of Auteuil and Depardieu, as well as their incredible, enormous noses that resemble art installations. These are the faces of men who have lived life to the very hilt and are proud to bear the scars. If anyone was to tell them what metrosexuals were, they would probably choke before reviving themselves with another cigarette.

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