A Plague of Symbols
|One of the film’s several chase scenes.|
Pars Vite et Reviens Tard is a rarity: a film made in Paris that doesn’t make the city look like a picture postcard. Although it features many handsome views of the city, they are not shot in the usual locations (believe it or not, the Eiffel Tower is seen only once, from afar, at the very end of the film). And, even when the sun is shining, the city has a grim, menacing look, much like the main character, police inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg (José Garcia), who never once cracks a smile in the entire film.
Adamsberg’s glumness may have to do with his backstory, but it isn’t explained in the film, which is based on the mystery novel of the same name by the extremely popular French writer Fred Vargas. Presumably, the scenarists (no fewer than five are credited, including Julien Rappeneau and the film’s director, Régis Wargnier) figured that it would be impossible to find a French filmgoer who wasn’t already familiar with Adamsberg’s story, so didn’t bother to go into it (I should say here that I have never read a Vargas novel and came to the film with no a prioris). All we know is that that Adamsberg is sad because his girlfriend Camille (Linh Dan Pham) has left him, but we don’t know why she has flown the coop (because he’s too involved with his police work, by any chance?).
Back to the film. It centers on a colorful cast of misfits, among them a sort of modern town crier (well-played by Olivier Gourmet) who live in a funky boarding house near the Centre Pompidou and hang out in the square around the Stravinsky Fountain. Adamsberg gets involved with this motley crew after strange black symbols begin appearing on doors in apartment buildings and naked corpses start turning up in the apartments without the symbol. They appear to have died from bubonic plague, contracted from fleas slipped in under the door in an envelope. Paris goes into panic mode, with people queuing up at pharmacies and wearing surgical masks in the streets. More plague-blackened bodies begin to show up.
After lots of Da Vinci Code-style research into the plague and mumbo-jumbo about symbols in medieval manuscripts, Adamsberg, aided by the 75-year-old boarding-house owner Hervé Decambrais (Michel Serrault), finally starts to unravel possible motives and identify some suspects. Several chase scenes over rooftops and through tunnels are thrown in to add some American-style action for good measure, along with some group-rat action under bridges at night to jack up the creepiness factor.
Perhaps this type of overladen plot is best left to a novel. And perhaps American-style action is best left to American action films. Pars Vite et Reviens Tard is a competently made, sometimes visually interesting film with some intriguing characters (except Adamsberg, who just seems dull), but it is overlong, confusing and not original enough to be the “interesting” film it seeks to be.
Alfred Hitchcock said that the best film adaptations were based on mediocre books and proved it himself over and over again. Perhaps Pars Vite et Reviens Tard, the book, was too good to be made into a movie.
A word from a Fred Vargas fan:
As a fervent fan of the original book, I appreciate that the demands of the medium inevitably mean simplification, but I was disappointed that the otherworldly, timeless atmosphere created by Fred Vargas had not translated to film. Although it was enjoyable, it wasn’t much more than a contemporary, even conventional detective film. The characters are recognizable (if somewhat better-looking than imagined), and the story line is respected (albeit with the introduction of action scenes that I don’t remember), but the essential spirit of the book just isn’t there.
© 2007 Paris Update
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