EIFF 2019 – L’empereur de Paris

L’empereur de Paris / The Emperor of Paris,
Directed by Jean-François Richet,
Starring Vincent Cassel, Olga Kurylenko, Patrick Chesnais, August Diehl, Denis Lavant, Freya Mavor

Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and this time it is a French period piece, based on a real-life historical character Eugène François Vidocq, who I must confess I had only vaguely heard of, mostly in relation to him inspiring later fictional works by the like of Poe and Balzac among others. This is classic poacher turned gamekeeper stuff, inspired by the actual Vidocq, a criminal who turned thief-taker, his familiarity with the Parisian underworld of the Napoleonic era and his own native ingenuity allowing him to track and capture the most wanted criminal gangs of the era in a way the regular authorities – mostly just watchmen with clubs and a heavy hand – could possibly manage. Vidocq is rightly famous in his native France as the founder and first director of the Sûreté Nationale and thought to be one of the first – if not the very first – private detectives.

But frankly, they had me at Vincent Cassel…

I’ve loved Vincent Cassel, with his charming bad-boy approach to so many roles, for many years, and the role of Vidocq seems almost tailor-made for his strengths, his ability to project competing, often contradictory qualities of ruthlessness, self-gain, dishonesty but also paradoxically heroism, resourcefulness, of doing the right thing when his back is against the wall. This role seems to suit Cassel especially well at this stage in his life and career, as he portrays the famous criminal, thought to have died in one of his infamous escapes years before, trying to go straight in Paris in 1805, but being drawn back into the underworld and the local law enforcement (the two are not as distinct as you’d expect, not back then). This is Paris in the era of Napoleon, but it has not yet been remade by Haussman as the broad boulevard Paris we know and love today, this is the older Paris, filthy streets, creaky, tilting old houses, tanners, butchers and washers working openly in the festering streets. The middle-aged Cassel’s more grizzled visage and a more world-weary sense about him fit into this scenario perfectly.

Yes, there are beats to this story you will recognise – the criminal trying to turn his life around, to be legitimate only to be dragged back into the murky underworld of crime (I keep trying to get out, they keep dragging me back in approach), the assembling of his own team to perform his task and win his amnesty, the creation of his opponent, just as intelligent and capable, and even more ruthless (his own Moriarty), you can spot all of these now common tropes, but it really doesn’t matter because this is beautifully done. The cinematography is gorgeous – you can almost smell old Paris, fights in crime lairs in the limestone tunnels beneath the city are lit by fire and candlelight to give them eerie aspects, contrasting against the opulence of the Imperial court of Napoleon.

Cassel is, as you’d expect, simply brilliant in this role – as I said, Vidocq could have been custom-made to be a Vincent Cassel character. Leo Carax regular Denis Lavant also essays a stand-out performance, twisting his body language and facial expressions into a cruel, mis-shapen, Fagan like criminal overlord, vile, despicable, ruthless and dangerous, without ever tilting that performance too far into parody (you believe how nasty and dangerous his gang leader is). A classy, stylish, period crime movie that should also introduce the rest of the world to the real, historic Vidoqc and his role as one of the fathers of modern policing and detectives.