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The address of the headquarters of the French National Police in Paris, and also the title of a film directed by Olivier Marchal which came out in France in 2004.

A police film? Surely you don't mean a good police film? Hadn't seen one from France in like 30 years, and that alone is worth celebrating. Olivier Marchal, a former cop, wrote and directed a film inspired by real cases of agency rivalry inside the French police. His model is Michael Mann's 1995 Heat. However, while Marchal has none of the great craft displayed in Mann's epochal masterpiece, he makes up for this in his sincerity.

Plot

A seemingly invincible gang of armored car robbers makes headlines while the DPJ (Chief of Police) is up for retirement: whoever catches them "will be King" and get the job as Chief.

On one hand, the Brigade de Recherche et d'Intervention (BRI, a real life police unit), led by Léo Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil) is a tight-knit group of street-smart, old school cops. On the other side of the ring is Denis Klein (Gérard Depardieu), head of the Brigade de Répression du Banditisme (BRB, also a real unit), a former friend of Vrinks who became a drunk, has long passed the line of what cops should or shouldn't do, and is only interested in gaining power and recognition within the police.

When Klein screws up during an intervention, causing the gang to escape and Vrinks's mentor to be executed by them, the rivalry between Vrinks and Klein turns to war, even after the gang is caught. Each man has skeletons in his closet, and each man has no qualms about doing illegal or immoral things to get the other.

Review

Marchal was in the police before he went into film, first acting in small made for TV movies, then creating his own TV series, Police District, in which he starred, which gained some recognition for being gritty and realistic. This is his second feature film and the first one to get a mainstream launch in France.

Actors

Daniel Auteuil, whom I can still remember playing a hormone-crazed teenager in the cult comedy Les Sous-Doués, is now one of the great actors of French cinema. His portrayal of a weary man trying to balance his duties as a cop and as a family man is irreproachable: this is a great performance from a great actor.

Depardieu, on the other hand, is painful to watch. It seems that, like De Niro whose last good role was about a decade ago in Jackie Brown, he has given up the profession of actor and instead taken up the business of appearing on film. However, while this seems to be a career choice for De Niro, Depardieu's decay from drugs and alcohol abuse is heartbreakingly obvious. Marchal did the sensible thing to cast a notorious drunk as a notorious drunk, which gives his character an inkling of credibility, but throughout the film Depardieu goes through the motions of going through the motions. His acting is not bad, it's non-existent. He simply sits or stands there, reciting lines in an involuntarily slurred speech. During the final confrontation scene the decay of one of the most significant actors in recent history is palpable when you see his inability to even raise his voice.

The supporting cast is more interesting. Roschdy Zem, an actor whom I've always been fond of, whose performance as a small-time thug who needs Vrinks's help to cover up a crime is striking because it is so discrete. When so many actors mistake gesticulating for acting, it's refreshing to see someone who doesn't think he has to make his preparation blatant and can step off his cothurns every once in a while.

Background

36 is based on the French ideal of the grand flic ("great cop"), who leads a team (as opposed to the American lone sherriff archetype), who speaks the street slang (in France the type of slang you speak is as significant as accent in Britain), is very street wise but not intelligent, quick to use his knuckles but incorruptible. It also recounts a story of guerre des polices, or inter-agency feud, many examples of which can be found throughout history. France's greatest robber Jacques Mesrine evaded capture for years largely due to the lack of communication between the two grand flics who were after him; the President himself had to step in and get them to work together—a month later Mesrine was caught (and shot to death).

As you can see, 36 rings very true to anyone who is familiar with the way France and its gargantuan administration work, and this is the great strength of Marchal's film: his eagerness to tell his story without bullshit. The film is openly based on two famous cases of guerre des polices, and dedicated to a grand flic Marchal worked under, who was shot dead in 1989.

However, while Marchal's sincerity is heartwarming, his lack of craft is evident. He tried to shoot Heat in Paris (and oh, how I pray to God every night that this should happen!) and it is not hard to see that he failed—perhaps the best compliment that can be given to this movie is that it's still good even though it comes up short in just about every area.

If you have experience in movies, there are a lot of things which you can easily tell by watching it. Marchal probably told his DP (that's Director of Photography, you pervert) to show a coldness and harshness of the environment of the movie however, due to lack of skill, it just ends up looking kinda blue. The editing is mediocre, and thus the film never quite picks up its rythm. You can tell that he cannot shoot an action sequence and was thus assisted for these, and assisted by some loser who must have made his career shooting hip hop videos.

Writing

But the biggest thing which can be reproached to this movie is the script Marchal wrote for it, which is askew even though he was assisted by Julien Rappeneau, an experienced screenwriter and son of the great director Jean-Paul Rappeneau.

The story is not well groomed, unlike what you'd expect from most police thrillers and mainstream movies, and this is good. It progresses much like the police cases you read about, much like life. Some important things end miserably and quietly. If the bad guys win, it's not really a win and they're not all bad guys. It's life. The movie conveys that well.

However, while both Marchal and Mann try to sketch an entire world through the various stories of the background characters, Mann's excellent screenplay makes you want the movie to have lasted two more hours so you could've learned more from these people. But if I'd been Marchal's editor, I would've cut half an hour from his film.

When he tries to be subtle he comes up short: it was only after seeing the film and reading a summary that I realized that the reason for the end of the friendship of Vrinks and Klein is that Vrinks' wife used to be Klein's girlfriend—or is it the other way around? This is hinted to by a couple lines in the movie, but I only made sense of them in retrospect. Anyway, as you can see, 36 can be too subtle at times, but at other times when it tries to emphasize something it over-emphasizes it, like Klein's alcoholism, which is portrayed in one (or two) too many "character building" scenes, which aren't helped along at all by Depardieu's abysmal acting.

Conclusion

So basically, 36 has many shortcomings, which come from its lack of quality craft (which itself is a consequence of the poor state of the French movie industry, but that's a different issue altogether), but at the same time it's a very refreshing, earnest film which was certainly worth a watch, and I recommend it if only for Auteuil's excellent performance and the harsh look at the way the French police and bureaucracy can sometimes work.

 

MCX and Cletus the Foetus are worried the the title is unproperly capitalized. It is. In French grammar, titles of works only have the first word capitalized, unless the first word is a definite article, in which case the first and second are. As an address, it should also remain uncapitalized.

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