Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wonders why people would watch Pigalle when they could just hire a couple of cross-dressing prostitutes and then give themselves paper cuts while the ladies scream at each other.
"I never want to see you again."—Vera
The above quote sums it up for me. This Koch Vision release of Pigalle works overtime to alienate viewers from the film. Watching it was such a distasteful experience that I could barely sit through the viewing. It isn't often that a poor presentation detracts so completely from the movie.
My first indication of the video quality came during the opening titles, which were white titles set against a black background. I say "black background," but that is merely a guess: there were so many nicks in the print that it looked like an impressionist painting of the night sky. Nicks and scratches, though distracting, are not necessarily indications of a poor transfer. But they are bad signs. When the film proper arrived, my worst fears were confirmed: the transfer is wretched.
Colors weep into each other as though drawn with a wet crayon. Fortunately, we don't see much in the way of color because the transfer is overwhelmingly dark. Details are hazy and indistinct. On top of all this, the grain is heavy. I guess that there is an unspoken rule in DVD distribution that states "You can get away with bad transfers in foreign flicks." Even if such a rule exists, Pigalle's transfer is pushing its luck. Even cinema verité (perhaps especially cinema verité) films deserve decent transfers.
Pigalle is a classic example of why conscientious DVD fans detest cropped transfers. This fullscreen presentation is obviously altered from a wide aspect ratio. Judging by the trailer, I'd say Pigalle is at least 1.85:1, possibly even wider. This cropping creates an intense feeling of claustrophobia, pushing characters off of the edge of the screen, cutting out profiles, and generally making the viewer disconcerted and uncomfortable. Bad cropping combined with low contrast renders a significant minority of the scenes indecipherable. Barely perceptible dark shapes move around on a darker background, with smears of garish color in the corner. I do not exaggerate when I say that I physically could not determine what was happening in several key scenes. It was so frustrating that I gave up halfway through and just passed time until the closing credits put me out of my misery.
In light of these video issues, the burnt-in subtitles may seem minor, but it was another roadblock to enjoyment of the film. Subtitles are supposed to be removable so that you can appreciate the composition of the shots or pick up on detail that might be otherwise obscured. In this case, optional subtitles might have given us the vital visual key to what is happening in some of the scenes.
Sonically the film fares slightly better, which isn't high praise. The 5.1 mix is not used to great effect, and the sound would perhaps have been clearer in stereo. Call me a pragmatist, but if your film is dialogue intensive it seems like a 2.0 mix is preferable. Given that I do not speak French, I can't tell you whether or not the dialogue is distinct. If I had to guess I'd say "no." Part of the culprit is the soundtrack itself, which is primarily location sound in a bustling city environment.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, how is the movie itself? This may be an unfair assessment given the less-than-ideal viewing conditions, but the phrase "train wreck" comes to mind. Pigalle is something of a surrealistic art slash crime film—with a romantic side. With strippers. And cross-dressers. And cross-dressing strippers…who are also drug pushers. There is a malicious midget drug lord and his right-hand man (who looks eerily like an evil Peter Jackson). These characters and more yell at each other with a healthy stream of words that start with "F," kiss each other (in an intimidating "I kiss you to threaten you, to make a physical assertion of dominance" kind of way), use each other, and eventually start trying to kill each other. I don't want to give away the ending, so I'll say no more.
The film starts out with promise. Véra Briole A Single Girl) sits on a chair on the stage, topless, and bends over backward until her forehead touches the floor. Depending on the direction of your film, you could make this erotic or artsy. Director Karim Dridi opts for artsy. In fact, most of the scenes with nudity in Pigalle are decidedly nonerotic. (Again, this could be due to cropping and a poor transfer that show us grainy, beige-colored, vaguely round, horizontal shapes instead of the usual grainy, gray, angular, vertical shapes.) Vera holds her pose for what seems like eternity, a secret smile of boredom playing on her lips. A few cuts to the audience members show us mankind at its ugliest, garish faces entranced with the illicit display of flesh. Get used to these faces, because they are the ones we will be subjected to for the next hour or so.
Everyone in Pigalle acts like their mother just died. French films have a knack for making despondency seem philosophical, as though the characters are dour by conscious choice. Pigalle does not pull this off very well. The characters are joyless, and it doesn't seem voluntary, which saps the viewer's joy. Contrary to popular opinion, the French can have fun; I've been there and seen it with my own eyes. Unfortunately, Pigalle lacks the hard-hitting street vibe it is trying for, which leaves it effectively nowhere.
To be fair to the director and cast, the film achieves some of its stated goals. The production notes tell us that the goal was to have professional actors blend in with denizens of the Pigalle district of Paris. Dridi did not want us to know who were actors and who were just your run-of-the-mill cross-dressing, gun-toting, depersonalized residents of Pigalle. In this he succeeds; I basically couldn't get a handle on who was who and why they were all trying to whack each other. Dridi wants us to know that Pigalle has a story, a seedy underbelly of crime and corruption to rival New York or Chicago. Why did it have to be such a hackneyed story? And it isn't news to anyone that Pigalle has a seedy underbelly…in fact, one might define Pigalle as such. The land of Moulin Rouge has never seemed so grim.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Production Notes
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