Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidoqc is the English title of a French film called simply Vidoqc. Gerard Depardieu plays the title role of Eugene Francois Vidoqc (the father of criminology and a real-life French figure of note), who is an occult detective on the grimy streets of Paris in 1830. He is on the trail of a masked serial killer, the Alchemist, but falls to his supernatural enemy within the first minutes of the film. Amidst the tumult of the outbreak of the Second French Revolution (also known as the July Revolution), Vidoqc’s biographer Etienne (played by French heartthrob Guillaume Canet) tracks down witnesses to fill in the blanks in Vidoqc’s investigation and mysterious disappearance. Meanwhile the Alchemist is still on the prowl and no one is safe from his mysterious powers.
This is a very stylized and disturbing movie, but I would definitely recommend it to fans of the Steampunk gestalt. If you are willing to deal with the subtitles, the special effects and unrepentant window into poverty make for a stunning and surreal adventure which definitely earns it’s R rating.
While watching it I was struck by how foreign it felt, which shouldn’t really surprise me seeing as how it is a foreign film, but it definitely is not a Hollywood movie. First off, the hero is a middle-aged man with a bulbous nose and a thick middle (though he still kicks some serious Alchemist ass when they meet in the flashbacks that make up Etienne’s investigation). The extreme camera angles highlight derelict victims of the streets (think Les Miserables with more underage workers and filth) which is enhanced by jerky motion and makes the enclosed spaces like the glassworks feel downright suffocating. The interior spaces all feel as though they are lit by gaslight, which makes the occasional burst of color really stand out.
Like The Golden Compass, City of Ember skirts the edge of “true” Steampunk, but I have seen it on several Steampunk movie countdowns (though interestingly not on book lists.)
The story centers on two teenagers, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway). We meet them on their Assignment Day when their entire future careers get determined by the luck of the draw. Doon is supposed to become a messenger, but he trades that choice job away to Lina in return for a chance to work under the city and gain access to the generator that supplies the lifeblood of Ember: electricity. Because Ember lies deep below the ground, safe from the terror that took place 241 years ago. Without the generator the entire population would be plunged into total darkness and the electric lights mounted all over the city is there only refuge from the abyss beyond.
But lately, the lights have begun to flicker.
Lina is delighted to become a messenger and dives into her duties with gusto. She is the grownup in her tiny family, which consists of a little sister named Poppy with a propensity for putting things in her mouth and a dear (though slightly crazy) grandmother who spends her days taking thread out of clothing and spooling it for reuse (no on has had new clothes for over a century). In the depths of a closet, Poppy uncovers a mysterious metal box that had belonged to a former mayor and proceeds to gnaw on the contents.
Lina recognizes the writing on the pages as coming from the revered and little understood “builders” who created Ember and, with the help of Doon, attempts to recreate the documents from the chewed mess. To their shock and amazement, they seem to be telling of a way out of Ember, and out of the danger of starvation and perpetual darkness. Can Lina and Doon overcome the rampant corruption in their government to discover the truth and lead the citizens of Ember to salvation?
Some fun facts and context:
۞ The movie is based on a novel called The City of Ember that was released in 2003. You can read an interview with the author here about the novel’s tenth anniversary this year.
۞ DuPrau wrote 2 sequels, The People of Sparks (2004) and The Diamond of Darkwood (2008), as well as a prequel called the Prophet of Yonwood (2006) that tells of the cause of the apocalypse that led to the building of Ember.
۞ The City of Ember was made into a graphic novel in 2012 by Niklas Asker.
۞ Harry Treadaway (Doon), most recently appeared in the 2013 Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp. Saoirse Ronan (Lina) has lent her voice as well as her face to several films and is best known for her roles in Atonement and The Lovely Bones.
۞ The film includes a few major changes from the book. First off, giant mutated animals. In the book, Doon keeps a caterpillar to observe it and is utterly fascinated by insects because the people of Ember never see things from above ground. In the film he finds a moth is easily 2 feet across, upping the visual ante but not staying true to the novel. There is also a completely terrifying star nosed mole as large as a hippopotamus that delivers the come-uppence to Ember’s corrupt mayor (played by Bill Murray), which never appeared in the book. Likely this is a reference to the nuclear cause of the apocalypse in the Prophet of Yonwood and mutations that could follow. Personally, I did not like the change, I thought the book was already great without the novelty.
۞ The other big change, which is probably the reason the movie ends up in Steampunk lists and the book does not, is the amount of gadgetry. In the movie, Doon’s father (Tim Robbins) is an inventor and Rube Goldberg type machines cook their breakfast, while in the book he runs a shop populated by old shoe heels and rusty nails. There are also scenes that take place in the huge industrial center under the city, but the tech is all there to create electricity so it is not very Steampunk in the end. But the gritty, dark ambiance and added mechanical gizmos definitely make you feel like you are in the past rather than the distant future.
۞ The set was built in the same shipyard the Titanic was, and many of the interiors that were built were never used in a single shot but add to the depth of the visual story. Check out the clips below the gallery for more windows into the underground city.
Click on the thumbnails for larger images.
Illusions are all about making an audience believe the impossible. Magicians can accomplish this through sleight of hand, misdirection and clever technology. Innovative and deceptive designs makes the turn of the century magician a great trope of steampunkery. At left, Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is seen pondering in his workshop where this son of a cabinet-maker aspires to and achieves greatness.
Most of this romantic drama centers on the relationship of Eisenheim and his childhood love, Sophie, who is being made to marry the crown prince of Austria. The special effects are beautiful and based on magic tricks that were really performed during the 20th century.
Fun Facts and Context:
۞ The film was based on a story that appeared in a volume of short stories called The Barnum Museum (1990). This was in reference to Barnum’s American Museum, an American attraction of oddities popular in the 1840s-1860s.
۞ The tale is called Eisienheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser. You can read the full text here.
۞ The romantic intrigue with Jessica Biel‘s character that drives the film is completely absent from the original story. The police become interested in Eisenheim because of the disappearance of a rival magician.
۞ The film is told from the perspective of Walter Uhl (played by Paul Giamatti), a police inspector.
۞ Giamatti spends most of the film flashing back over his investigation for the benefit of Prince Leopold of Austria (played by Rufus Sewel). Leopold was not a real person, but is based on Rudolf, the crown prince of Austria who died at the age of 30 in 1889. Rudolf had a mistress who died under shadowy circumstances like the Sewel character.
۞ The filmmakers wanted to capture to beauty and awe of watching a master illusionist, so many of most impressive tricks are done with computer graphics to achieve what the Eisenheim of the original story had been able to do. But, you can see a video of a real mechanical orange tree illusion here.
۞ Edward Norton did perform many of his own sleight of hand tricks, but his hands were sometimes portrayed by his double, James Freedman.
I’ve created a gallery below featuring images both from the turn of the century and contemporary portrayals of Steampunk magicians and illusions.
Of course, I can’t talk about The Illusionist without giving a shout out to The Prestige. I will do another sourcebook entry for The Prestige in particular, but I wanted to know from you, my readers, which movie you prefer. Weigh in below by commenting on this post and make sure to say why you picked the film you did.
For die hard fans, His Dark Materials (known as the Golden Compass trilogy in the US), wouldn’t technically fit into the definition of Steampunk.
The series is set in the present/near future so steam power is a thing of the past and the story has nothing to do with Victorian England or an alternate history, but the parallel universe Lyra Belacqua inhabits has some decidedly Steampunk elements to it. The images in this post are all from the 2007 film release of The Golden Compass.
First, England gets “punked.” Lyra lives at Jordan College within Oxford University, which doesn’t exist in our universe. She later travels to an alternative London with dirigibles floating over head and horseless hansom cabs, apparently their answer to the automobile.
The spaces that she inhabits in while in the power of the evil Mrs. Coulter remind me a lot of the work of Alfonse Mucha (1860-1939).
There are also so some fun alternative technologies, for instance, a projector (which they call a spirit projector) that uses glassy orbs to create 3D, moving images of of the mysterious Dust (which is basically powdered sentience). The bad guys also employ “spy flies” which are clockwork insects “with a bad spirit pinned to it” and sent to locate Lyra and her band.
Fun Facts and Context
- The Golden Compass was originally released under the name Northern Lights.
- The trilogy explores contemporary concepts in science such as quantum entanglement (lodestone resonator), dark matter (dust is invisible without the amber spyglass even though in the Golden Compass film they depict it clearly as visible by the naked eye) and human evolution (how did we become “more” than animals? Where did sentience come from?)
- The Golden Compass film stops short of the plot of the first book. The real ending of the Golden Compass is darker and sadder, but I think they stopped where they did in hopes of continuing the trilogy and that needed a more hopeful note.
- Unfortunately, the films of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass were never made. Many people, including actors in the film, blamed the Catholic church for killing the series. I admit that I watched the movie before I read the books and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t continue and why the church would protest so much. Then I read the books and I totally get it. (Spoiler alert) Even if the story wasn’t overtly about killing god (or at least the one posing as god), there are multiple scenes of a violence against children, like in Citegazze (a city in another alternative universe), that would have been hard to stomach on the silver screen.