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Good cop, bad cop
A region 2 DVD review of 36: QUAI DES ORFÈVRES by Slarek

You'd be forgiven for having some seriously high expectations for 36, or to give it its full title, 36: Quai des Orfèvres. It's a police drama/thriller directed by an ex-cop and starring the heavyweight duo of Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu. And its been a good few years since Bertrand Tavernier's superb L.627 pretty much set the bar for modern French policiers. So is 36 the successor to the throne that we've been waiting for? Well, not quite.

It not hard to see why 36 has already been snapped up for an American remake, despite the absence to date of any sort of US distribution deal for the original. You've got two seasoned detectives who were once friends and are now rivals for the same promotional opportunity, one a decent family man, the other a worn-down alcoholic, both with young and good-looking women at their sides. They are also both after the same gang of dangerous armed robbers, whose arrest is the key that will open the door to that upward career move. The good detective, Léo Vrinks (Auteuil), becomes accidentally involved in an underworld murder, but in exchange for providing an alibi for the killer (an ex-informant of his), he is given the names of two of the armed gang, the location of their hideout and information on their next planned hit. When the operation to take the gang down kicks off, however, not-so-good cop Denis Klein (Depardieu) compromises the operation in an attempt to grab the credit for himself, a move that results in the death of Vrinks' closest friend. Vrinks becomes determined to see Klein punished for his actions, but before he can testify against him, the news of his involvement in the earlier killing falls conveniently into Klein's hands.

This is not a police procedural in which we are invited to second guess the detectives as they solve the crime – indeed, the crimes themselves are largely background detail to the escalating conflict between the two detectives. Pleasingly, there is none of the "you son of a bitch!" finger-pointing and furious fisticuffs we can at the very least expect from the remake – the hostility here simmers beneath the surface and anger is held in check, visible only in looks passed across rooms or at funerals (there are more than one). The drama is also dominated by an atmosphere of brooding melancholy, suggesting that despite the emphasis on teamwork, this is an ultimately lonely profession that puts damaging strains on friendships and family. It can also, of course, get you killed.

Vrinks' squad are in some ways indistinguishable from the villains they chase down, something director Olivier Marchal plays with effectively in the opening sequence, which cuts between a violent robbery and a celebratory dinner with little initial indication of who is who. As the newly transfered Eddy is presented with the signature-plastered street sign of the title (the actual address of the Paris police headquarters and seen stolen in the first shots of the film), the suggestion is of a crime boss given a trophy of victory against the Sûreté, further emphasised when some of the party shoot up the bar in celebration. When Vrinks and Eddy arrive at a crime scene the following morning wearing police overcoats, it's actually something of a jolt. They're not above taking a bit of personal revenge, either, frightening the living shit out of a suspect involved in the assault and rape of a prostitute friend of Vrinks, an act that later bounces back on one of them and provides the narrative with a somewhat too-neat (but well-enough handled) ending.

With the American remake on cards, it's only fair to point out that 36 does its own share of borrowing from Hollywood crime movies, something director Olivier Marchal is not shy of admitting. There are clear influences of Michael Mann's Heat in the early van robbery and the later shoot-out between cops and robbers, both of which are smartly staged. Not all of the borrowings are such good news. Events are sometimes telegraphed well in advance, quick flashbacks pop up to remind the inattentive of earlier events, and the realism established elsewhere is sometimes disregarded in order to startle the audience – early in the film an arrest goes wrong when the suspect grabs Vrinks and leaps through the window with him, but he hits the ground first and was presumably squishy enough to break the detective's fall, allowing Vrinks to escape with a couple of minor facial cuts.

Despite the initial suggestion of the police as hoodlums with badges, 36 lacks the intriguing moral ambiguity that allowed us to simultaneously root for both sides in Heat. The film increasingly demonises Klein by piling on the moral and ethical crimes he commits against Vrinks in order to shape the final quarter into a revenge drama, then introduces an element that will allow Vrinks to find a moral high ground that the audience will feel comfortable with. Not that any of this is a problem – it's certainly well enough done – but it does tread very familiar turf, making for a safer entertainment than the edgily low key handling initially suggests. Where the film does trip up a bit is in the music, which although fine for the most part is sometimes overwrought to the point of cinematic cliché, something also evident in the night time prison exterior that's accompanied by the anguished bellow of "Noooooo!"

But 36 is still a solid and enjoyable police drama shaped largely from Marchal's own experiences in the force. If Depardieu tends to sink into the background a little in a deliberately underplayed performance, Auteuil again makes his mark as a very effective leading man, his good looks having the weathered edge of a seasoned professional, but still physically agile enough to disarm two officers in a blink of an eye without stretching credibility. In an interview on the extra features, Marchal expresses his scorn for French minimalist cinema and his determination to make an entertainment rather than an art film. In this he certainly succeeds, but it is that willingness to both give the audience what they want and yet still challenge their expectations that makes Mann's and Tavernier's films so special – in cinema, a little art can sometimes go a long way.

sound and vision

Framed 2.35:1 and anamrophically enhanced, this is a very decent transfer of a film whose unglamorous locations and sometimes dark interiors do not make life exactly easy for DVD authoring. Contrast is largely impressive, though there are odd darkened interior shots where black levels are not quite there (a compromise to retain the shadow detail, perhaps). Detail is good and colour reproduction appears to be bang on.

The usual Tartan trio of Dolby 2.0 stereo, Dolby 5.1 surround and DTS surround are offered, with DTS coming out on top for punch, volume and dynamic range, though the 5.1 is no slouch. The full sound stage is very effectively used here and the difference between the quietest and loudest sounds can be substantial, giving me (and doubtless my neighbours) a fair few jolts, and LFE bass makes several ornament-rattling appearances. The explosive gun battle between the police and the armed gang in particular is a home cinema show-off scene, placing you right in the middle of the action, much as you were with, you've guessed it, a similar if larger (and longer) scene in Heat.

It should be mentioned that there also is a Dolby 2.0 English dub included. Apart from the hopeless mismatch of words and mouth movements and the absurdity of hearing Auteuil and Depardieu sporting American tough guy accents, these voices have to a large extent not been effectively mixed with the ambient sound, having none of the location acoustics and thus sounding very much like the add-ons they are.

The subtitles, though clear, appear to be less a direct translation of the French dialogue than a textual adaptation of the English language dub, which has been altered from the original to suit differences in the sentence length and localised colloquialisms of the two languages. You only need a basic familiarity with French to start spotting the small differences.

extra features

In the Olivier Marchal Interview (9:37) the director talks about the autobiographical elements of the film, working with such famous leads, the level of authenticity of some elements and the macho aspect of the male characters. As mentioned above, he also emphasises that he made the film not as art but for an audience, but as with others who have made this claim he does not elaborate on what he believes the expectations of his selected audience actually are, or address the fact that such expectations are far from universal.

Making 36 (27:42) is a decently shot and assembled behind-the-scenes documentary that observes in some detail the filming of several scenes, largely uninterrupted by interview material or extended film clips. It's a consistently interesting and well balanced piece, and pleasingly includes a few technical hiccups and some director frustration. Marchal, dressed in a leather coat and directing with his entire body, looks very much like one of Vrinks' hard-arse gang of detectives, which of course he once was. Optional English subtitles are provided, as they are with all of the extra features.

Choosing Costumes (13:41) is a partially self-explanatory title for a DV featurette that also provides an engaging and busy behind-the-scenes peek at the cast and director preparing for the shoot.

Choosing Weapons (13:09) is done in similar style and should have gun nuts slobbering with glee, as director Marchal and his associates get to do the boys-with-toys thing when they are shown a whole range of deadly weapons and get to coo at their magnificence. The process of selection is nonetheless interesting.

Finally we have the Original Trailer (2:00) and the Teaser Trailer (0:52) do a good job of selling the film, though there are a couple of spoilers in here, so these are for later.


36 is an involving cop drama that falls short of greatness through the familiarity of many of its elements and some play-it-safe work on the plotting and characterisations. It's well worth seeing nonetheless, for its two leads, its assured handling and for its sense of a system struggling as much with itself as with those it is in existence to combat. Tartan's DVD does well on picture, very well on sound, and has a selection of worthwhile extras. If you're a fan of the genre or already have a soft spot for the film, then the DVD will not disappoint.

36: Quai des Orfèvres

France 2004
110 mins
Olivier Marchal
Daniel Auteuil
Gérard Depardieu
Andre Dussollier
Roschdy Zem
Valeria Golino
DVD details
region 2
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS surround 5.1
Interview with Olivier Marchal
The Making of 36 documentary
Wardrobe featurette
Weapons featurette

release date
18 September 2006
review posted
17 September 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews