As director and co-writer, Olivier Marchal became a big player in French cinema when his crime thriller 36 Quai des Orfvres was released in 2004.
With only his second full-length feature, he pulled off the coup of persuading France’s two male superstars, Daniel Auteuil and Grard Depardieu, to take the leading roles as rival Parisian detectives.
The result was that audiences flocked to see this darkly entertaining expos of a twilight world in which the cops and the crooks are hard to tell apart.
Now, at last, the movie has gained a UK release – retitled 36 – in June 2006. It’s well worth the wait.
When I met Marchal in the restaurant of a West End hotel back in March, his film was about to be given a one-off screening to headline the French Film Festival in London. Chain-smoking cigarettes in one hand while gesticulating with the other, and dressed all in black, he makes a distinctly Gallic impression. With a grizzled grey beard and thinning black curly hair, and a ‘lived-in face’ suggesting an interesting past, he looks slightly older than his 47 years.
With the aid of a translator, he explains how his career has progressed from being a policeman to becoming an actor, and then writer and director, for TV and cinema.
Growing up in the small city of Talence in Gironde in south-west France, he became a bit of a teenage delinquent, but acting in local theatre groups took him off the streets. He joined the police force in 1980 “hoping to make a difference” but left after 12 hard years, disillusioned with the widespread corruption and bad management he found there – experiences which he has since utilized to great effect in his TV and film work.
Marchal says frankly of that time in his life: “I realised I had to get out when I developed a drink problem. Alcohol was omnipresent in the police as it seemed the only way to cope with all the stress. Unlike then, nowadays psychological help is available to policemen who need but it is not publicized that there are still about 100 police suicides a year.”
After acting in and, later, writing a number of TV detective series, in 1999 Marchal directed the short film Un Bon Flic (A Good Cop). The tagline ‘To be a good cop, you have to be a real bastard’ gives a good idea of what it’s about. His first feature film, the low-budget Gangsters (2002), portrayed the dangerous business of undercover detectives investigating police corruption. Marchal concedes: “Perhaps I have an unhealthy fascination with rogue cops and the dodgy relationship between crime-busters and criminals.”
This disturbing ambivalence is given fullest expression in 36 Quai des Orfvres, where it proves impossible to draw a clear moral line. The characters and story are partly based on real people and events from the ’80s when the French police force was mired in a corruption scandal and cops threatened to go on strike due to conflict with senior management.
Marchal was inspired in particular by his friend Dominque Loiseau, a member of the Organized Crime Unit who helped to break up the notorious ‘Postiche Gang’ in 1985, but was then jailed for six and a half years for corruption – wrongly, as Marchal believes. “He was just a scapegoat but because of that he lost his career and even his family. On my film he worked as a chauffeur for the actors, as well as being a consultant on the script.”
Marchal’s use of inside knowledge in making the movie seems to be partly to try and put the record straight and partly to exorcize the demons that still haunt him from his days as a policeman. “I find making films release a lot of dark feelings inside me,” he admits, but adds: “However, here the idea is to entertain people too, not just rub their faces in the dirt!”
He describes 36 Quai des Orfvres as “a kind of modern Count of Monte Cristo with the police as a backdrop, and the grand themes of tragedy: friendship, love, betrayal and revenge. Our aim was to make a big, popular film, a thriller with an American look, but with characters anchored in the tradition of the great French thrillers like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge. A sort of French Heat with a duel between two strong characters.”
The protagonists are, of course, played by Auteuil (as Lo Vrinks, Head of the Anti-Gang Squad) and Depardieu (as Denis Klein, Head of the Organised Crime Unit), who both give compelling performances. Their professional rivalry in trying to get the top job in the Police Judiciare by being the one to catch a gang of ruthless armed robbers is exacerbated by romantic rivalry – Vrinks has married the woman Klein loves.
Daniel Auteuil was originally cast to play Klein, the less sympathetic of the two by some margin, but after two actors due to play Vrinks successively dropped out, Auteuil swapped roles, and then Depardieu took on the part of Klein. “I rewrote both parts specifically for them,” Marchal explains. “I couldn’t believe my luck – to hook the Auteuil-Depardieu duo for my second film seemed in the realms of fiction!”
The intense Auteuil emphasizes the dark, withdrawn side of Vrinks’ character. Marchal comments: “He’s first and foremost a cop, and then a husband or father. He loves his wife and daughter deeply but he’s obsessed by his profession.” As the unscrupulous embittered Klein, Depardieu nonetheless manages to give this alcoholic loner who lives just for his job a tragic dimension. Marchal describes him brilliantly as having “the look of an old dog off for the last injection at the vet’s”.
Marchal also provides an insight into the contrasting ways the great actors tackle their roles: “Gerard is an instinctive, animal actor who charges into a scene like a dog into a game of skittles, while Daniel is more cerebral – he has read and re-read the script dozens of times, he has talked to me about cops and met many of them as research.”
Marchal himself has a cameo role as Christo, a crook who has retired from a life of crime. “I have a lot of respect and admiration for robbers of the old school. And anyway, if I’d given myself a more important role, I’d never have got to the end of this film! You need the genius of an Orson Welles or the confidence and experience of a Clint Eastwood to give yourself a leading role as well as directing a film.”
And his next project? “It will be an incredibly dark film about a serial killer, a cop and a girl, in which everyone dies – yes, it’s a romantic comedy!”