“Serve your country or remain mediocre”
Jean-François Richet’s 2018 historical drama The Emperor of Paris (French: L’Empereur de Paris) puts a modern spin on the tale of the historical figure Eugène François Vidocq, a criminal turned detective. With the trailer dipping into the crawling filth and malicious faces of 19th century Paris, our armed protagonist swoops in and out of sight – graceful and deadly. But do the story’s parameters, stretched to emcompass riveting action, politics, romance and redemption, take away from the depth of the film’s message?
Accused of a crime he did not commit, François Vidocq (Vincent Cassel) is forced to dive back into the criminal underbelly of Paris. As the only man to have escaped the country’s most terrifying penal colonies, Vidocq is perceived as a traitor by the criminals he hunts down. Combined with the cruel way the French powers tease him with the promise of amnesty, Vidocq is left feeling alienated from the world he serves to rebalance. Then, when power-starved Nathanaël (August Diehl) shows up in Vidocq’s life after many years, a new threat looms over his somewhat peaceful existence. Weakened by his love for Annette (Freya Mavor), he will find that there can be no future without confronting the past.
The film takes a bold approach to the dramatisation of historical events. Aware of the audience’s tendency to be desensitised to gory details and shocking use of violence, The Emperor of Paris aims for an ambitious mix of grisly brutality, fleeting yet confounding mentions of the city’s politics, and over-romanticised love scenes that are not nearly as fleshy as the violent fight scenes.
Vidocq’s cape appears to be constantly swooshing in the background as the man leaps off stairs, fires revolvers straight at his opponents’ faces, and keeps up the wittiest of exchanges with Napoleon’s right-hand. He is omnipresent and omnipotent, it would seem. Meanwhile, the antagonist, manic and unhinged, bares a resemblance to a cackling Joker. This seems quite fitting, as our protagonist clings to the shadows like a masked Batman, fighting the thugs of Paris one grunt at a time.
This standard plot outline would seem awfully jarring, if not for the film’s affinity for action. It starts off with a squish and a thud, quite literally. It then plunges into intrigue that is presented better visually than through dialogue, which circles its core aimlessly – leaving us gazing at the grim setting instead. When it finally tears its way to the heart of its intent, the story appears to tiptoe around events that precede the plot itself, taunting us with ghostlike exposition.
Manifesting its devotion to action sequences, The Emperor of Paris jumps through events that are hard to follow on an emotional level. However, they exist in a realm of human commonality that can hardly be accused of being unrelatable. Regardless of their standing, everyone has one simple goal in life – to survive. And in a world of far fewer moral scrupules, this makes for an engaging spectacle. The narrow tunnels licked by candlelight conceal threats lurking in the darkness, humming words of sadness and impending death.
The thriller-esque quality of such a setting is heightened by Dutch angles and long takes during fight sequences, supplying the period piece with rare dynamism. Pumped with the adrenaline of such manoeuvres, the characters’ emotions seem to zap and soar faster than they would normally. Rather than seem infuriating, this adds some charming consistency to the film’s pacing. Its freshness, aided by Hervé Schneid’s powerful editing, is even reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) in that it reflects the immutable nature of human attributes, as opposed to the archaic physicality of the times.
All in all, The Emperor of Paris is perfect for those, who seek action and gore, which are somewhat detached from reality. Calling the film a drama is a bit of a stretch, but this in itself is a nod to the lively shape of its final, fluid form.
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