Retrospective: 36 (2004)

Harry Riedl is a film enthusiast from West London and this continues a series of retrospective reviews on his favourite cult classics.

36 is an incredibly compelling French movie, with a strong plot of betrayal and deceit in Paris. It adopts the action-movie approach to film-making, which grips the viewer. It’s also part of the grand tradition of a ‘French Policer’, an American inspired idea based on the idea of film noir, where the police is the primary focus of the movie and their grey, compromising actions are the body of the film. The actions of the criminals are secondary in relation to the compromised, flawed and downright nasty figures in the police.

36 is remarkably based on the true story of two cops in rival anti-gang organisations: BRB (Brigade de Répression du Banditism) and BRI (Brigades de Recherche et d’Intervention), both dealing with a criminal group which has robbed various banks. In their desperation to catch them, both are forced to colour outside the lines.

The film is introduced to the viewer from the perspective of a prisoner in solitary confinement. The movie switches to a flashback of three simultaneous events: one a very loud raucous party for a departing senior officer, the rape of a former hooker and the preparation and execution of the robbery of a security van. These three events have a huge impact on the rest of the movie as each can be effectively linked to the other. The twists relate to each sub plot and how they interconnect. For this reason the plot is going to be deliberately vague, but what it boils down to are two very ambitious cops who head up two competing departments trying to stop the crime with any means possible to secure their next promotion. These two police officers have known each other for a very long time and have gone from friends to deep, bitter rivals.

Two premier French actors play the two leads: Gérard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil, who have had long careers and a history of acting together. The fact this movie has been directed by an ex-police officer (Olivier Marchal) creates a true to life atmosphere of paranoia, distrust, envy, loyalty and a fair bit of swearing. It’s got a sharp and distinctive feel. There are lots of static shots of people in cars talking and arguing and this is nicely contrasted with sharp cuts and steady cam shots of fighting, such as an epic fight between the cops and the criminals in the middle of the movie, which nicely alters the perspective of the action from 4-5 different viewpoints.

The use of outer Paris and Saint Omer makes a powerful change for a movie showing the dark underbelly of what is considered the most romantic and pretty cities in the world by revealing seedy topless bars, rusty wearhouses and tower blocks.

The two police officers, Auteuil and Depardieu, are both similarly dark creatures who act illegally and use their position of power to exert pressure on those they think will be able to advance their cause.  The personal vendetta between both officers gives the film an added dimension of animosity as we learn one officer has gone off with the other’s wife.

The characterization of the police officers is very impressive as it really express the feeling of power that being part of an elite team creates.  After they’ve stripped a rapist gangster and given him a mock execution in the middle of the French forest, one member spits at him as they rifle through his money, prompting them to envy the gangster’s wealth , which is a refrain for many characters in the movie.

36 is a French, deep, police drama where the focus on the characters and the police make it a very unusual action movie. Do not be put off by the subtitles (and like most successful French movies, there’s an inevitable English remake coming out in 2013). The two leads and the various dark and interesting characters plus a few unexpected twists make this a fine introduction to French cinema.

Review by Harry Riedl


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