Column: From Strange and Distant Shores: Dark Portals (Vidocq)

By Orrin Grey

dark_portalsDark Portals (2001) Director: Pitof Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Guillaume Canet Country: France

I watched Dark Portals (AKA Vidocq) because the trailer I saw for it made it look like a good companion for Brotherhood of the Wolf: a stylish French period film about mysterious and possibly supernatural goings-on, featuring martial arts-like fighting sequences. In all those respects, I wasn’t misled.

One of the first films to be shot with digital cinematography, Dark Portals has a weird, heavy-handed visual style that’s very striking but takes more than a little getting used to. Everything looks slightly unreal; like a Tim Burton-esque music video. There’s a Technicolour vividness to the palette of the film, and sudden and seemingly unprovoked close-ups of eyes, cheeks, and noses abound.

The Paris of Dark Portals seems to occupy a vaguely-steampunk alternate history. Like Brotherhood of the Wolf, it departs from a point of actual fact, in this case the criminal-turned-private-detective Eugene Francois Vidocq (played by Girard Depardieu). In Dark Portals, Vidocq is investigating a serial killer called the “Alchemist”, who wears a mirrored mask and has apparently killed a couple of people by shooting them with lightning bolts.

The Alchemist is one of the best parts of the movie. His mirror mask, which would seem to be a difficult effect to pull off, actually looks great most of the time, and his flowing robe and weirdly-tinny, overlaid voice help to make him work as a quasi-monstrous villain figure. Plus, his laboratory and lightning-bolt-projecting machine are sure to warm the hearts of any steampunk fans who’re watching.

(Not to be outdone, Vidocq has his own intriguing sets and props, especially in his Batcave-esque hidden crime lab.)

Unfortunately, most of the storyline is murky at best. In the opening scenes, we see Vidocq apparently fall to his death while pursuing the Alchemist and from there, the film jumps around in time as Vidocq’s would-be biographer investigates his disappearance, all the while uncovering the (increasingly bizarre) specifics of the events that led up to it. By the time the credits roll pretty much everything can be puzzled out, but the telling feels so muddled and random that it’s difficult to care overmuch.

That Dark Portals isn’t a better movie probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. It’s the first feature from director Pitof, who would go on to “win” a Razzie for Worst Director for his work on the Halle Berry vehicle Catwoman. There are problems aplenty to be found in Dark Portals, but if you’re not looking for the traditional pleasures of a good narrative, there’s also a lot to like, especially for the connoisseur of over-the-top, hyper-stylized, quasi-supernatural detective stories.

You can purchase Dark Portals from Amazon.com

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IFPColumn: From Strange and Distant Shores: Dark Portals (Vidocq)