Mischief in Marseille
The Connection, thriller, rated R, in French with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
It’s French. And it’s called The Connection. And yes, it’s that French connection, the one that inspired an Oscar-winning movie in the early ’70s, this time seen from the other side of the Atlantic, where it all began. (The original title was La French, so you can see the filmmakers were determined to make the connection, one way or another.)
Director Cédric Jimenez (who co-wrote the screenplay with Audrey Diwan) starts the action in Marseille in 1975, when Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), a tough but compassionate youth court magistrate, is transferred to narcotics enforcement to bring down drug kingpin “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) and his heroin empire.
The raw material for this film, and for its antecedent, William Friedkin’s 1971 cop classic, comes from Robin Moore’s nonfiction book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy. Both Friedkin and Jimenez turned the facts into fictionalized accounts, but the story of the cesspool of drugs and corruption is real enough.
Dujardin, who took home an Oscar for his work as a silent-movie star in 2011’s The Artist, anchors The Connection as the fearless, incorruptible Magistrate Michel. He’s no rough-hewn “Popeye” Doyle, the New York cop Gene Hackman rode to his own Oscar in the Friedkin movie. Michel is sophisticated and polished, an outsider learning the ropes in a war in which it’s not easy to tell the good guys from the bad. His opposite number is Lellouche, equally smooth and totally corruptible as the brutal druglord Zampa. They’re both family men, in love with their wives, but with problems at home; both are dedicated and obsessive about their work. They’re even physically similar — dark, handsome, square-jawed. They understand the concept of tough love — we see Michel dealing with a drug-addicted teenage girl, and Zampa using a very different approach to curb the addiction of one of his underlings. But the similarities only go so far. Michel’s humanity is profound and passionate; Zampa’s is a gloss on a deep-seated evil.
The Connection doesn’t begin to shake up the crime genre and blaze new territory the way Friedkin’s movie did, but Jimenez constructs a solid, thoughtful, and exciting police procedural out of material and characters that come steeped in familiarity. The cop drama template has been worked over so much that we can’t really expect breakthrough originality anymore; keep us engaged in the storytelling, and we’re satisfied. You’ll find corruption in places high and low, unflinching courage, neglect of personal relationships, and other familiar trappings of the genre.
Michel’s investigation slogs on over a period of years, and there are times when it feels as if the movie is doing the same thing. The Connection is probably a half hour heavier than its frame ought to bear, but for the most part it’s involving and solidly crafted. Dujardin’s charismatic presence keeps us rooting for good, without much hope that good will ultimately prevail.
— Jonathan Richards
Hero du jour: Jean Dujardin