Our continuing Sundance coverage counter-programming initiative…
Olivier Marchal was in the police forces before he began starring in, writing for, and acting in gritty French crime dramas, and what’s most startling about "36 Quai des OrfÃ¨vres" (beyond it’s glossily high production values) is its bleak moral assessment of what it means to be a good cop. Ubiquitous French icons Daniel Auteuil and GÃ©rard Depardieu play rival higher-ups in the titular Parisian police headquarters â€” former friends who head up different departments and who are now competing to catch a violently efficient gang of robbers, with the unspoken prize being a promotion to commissioner.
"36 Quai des OrfÃ¨vres" isn’t a procedural, and the ways Auteuil’s LÃ©o Vrinks and Depardieu’s Denis Klein go about tracking the gang quickly fade into the background as the film focuses on the relationship Vrinks and Klein have with their men and each other. Vrinks has a bit of gangster to him in the way he heads his department; his men are totally devoted, and he holds them apart from the rest of the force when it comes to regulations â€” in an early scene, Vrinks and co. are out celebrating the approaching retirement of one of their own (and it’s always nice to see that some rules of cinema are universal â€” anyone celebrating their retirement from law enforcement is clearly doomed), and one of the men spots a mouse scuttering by, which leads to several drunkenly shooting up the bar in an attempt to kill it while Vrinks chuckles fondly in the background.
But it’s Vrinks who has the film’s tacit approval, compared to Depardieu’s by-the-book (except when it doesn’t suit him), power-hungry Klein. Klein, who is always one step behind Vrinks, in professional and personal life â€” in a never completely sketched out subplot, we learn that Vrinks’ wife (Valeria Golino â€” so that’s where she went) was first involved with Klein â€” is frustrated and crumbling apart. Depardieu curls his large frame inward as if expecting a blow, and, even before he betrays Vrinks, one half-expects him to get one. Klein seems to be lacking some essential, implicit quality that every true cop needs, and whatever it is, his deficiency summons scorn from all sides. His increasingly ruthlessness as the film unfolds makes more sense, often, then Vrinks’ adherence to his own opaque code of honor…always slinking around on the outskirts, Klein is never a part of the snarling wolf pack hierarchy the police force is depicted as having, and, given the chance to take out its leader, he doesn’t pretend it isn’t personal.
In Marchal’s Paris, the detectives all stride around in black leather jackets, which, while possibly not accurate, looks awfully good against cinematographer Denis Rouden’s grey-washed cityscapes. It’s not a welcoming world, and one doesn’t feel any more comfortable with this portrayal of the men and women keeping order in it.
"36 Quai des OrfÃ¨vres" isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s a strikingly competent, ambitious production. Still, it’s not so surprising that, even given its leads, its failed to secure US distribution â€” in the advancing oddity that is the US market, foreign films have been confined to the art house, and "Quai" is slick, expensive, and not really art house film. Whatever is a marketer to do?