Year Released: 2015
Directed by: Cedric Jimenez, Shannon Harvey
Starring: Jean Dumardin, Giles Lellouche, Celine Sallette
(R, 135 min.)
Genre: Documentary, Action and Adventure, Mystery and Suspense
He’s no Popeye Doyle, this elegant French police magistrate who’s after a nasty Marseilles gang of heroine traffickers. But he is every bit as determined and relentless.
Jean Dujardin takes a turn from his charming role as The Artist, trading in his landmark smile for the square jawed real life Frenchman Pierre Michel, who takes up where Popeye Doyle left off. Some 10 years since the real life Eddie Egan (the NYPD cop who was the basis for Popeye) did his thing, the heroin trade is still thriving in Marseilles, even if our elegant French Connection, or Frog One as Popeye dubbed him, has been replaced by an Italian import, “Tany” Zampa (Giles Lellouche), a Neapolitan under lord who has just risen to the top. He hands a rather bloody pink slip to his rival in the opening scene, a roadside execution in broad daylight.
The film’s director, Cedric Jimenez, “himself a native of Marseille, whose father owned a beachside nightclub frequented by gangsters,” goes out of his way to present a humanized portrayal of Zampa. Both he and Michel, the magistrate, are devoted husbands and fathers. Images of bullet-ridden corpses are framed by scenes of domestic peace, Tany reading to his daughter or celebrating his anniversary with his beautiful wife.
The cop and the gangster are equally debonair, even with their 70s style sideburns. Their Gallic profiles seem almost interchangeable, which leads to a perhaps purposeful ambiguity. Sometimes I thought I was watching Michel when it was really Zampa, or vice versa, which on top of keeping up with the French subtitles and quick bursts of action, left me confused or deliberately off balance, depending on how much credit one would like to give to the director.
Director Jimenez says, in spite of the magistrate and the gangster not looking alike in real life, he chose to do so in the film. Perhaps trying to blur the line between the pursued and the pursuer.
This critic kind of misses the contrast between the two rivals, the sophisticated Frenchman, and the vulgar American cop, that anchored American director William Friedkin’s 1971 The French Connection.
Nonetheless, this French film in intriguing and hard hitting. Police magistrate Michel is a French Elliot Ness, using his imagination and a few extra-legal tricks when bureaucratic roadblocks slow down his pursuit of Zampa. When he at first cannot net the big fish, he strings in all his little minnows, and that gets Zampa’s attention, not to mention the renewed enthusiasm of the discouraged police force under him, at least those officers who are not already on Zampa’s payroll.
“An entertainingly eclectic use of period pop music — from Blondie and Serge Gainsbourg to Al Wilson and Fort Worth’s Townes Van Zandt — adds to the film’s allure,” as well as other authentic period details, such as the afore-mentioned sideburns, polyester suits, and the use of 35 mm film “to give it the look and feel of a 70s movie.”
Okay, the closest you get to a car chase is a rather sedate tail on a heroin cooker. A double dose of sartorial chic and domestic contentment in both leads replaces the gritty, vulgar New York world of Popeye Doyle. And the electric crack and sizzle of Friedkin’s 1971 masterpiece is not there.
But the low-keyed realism in The Connection has its tragic impact, maybe all the more so because of it.
Enjoy with this “French in a Flash” Recipe for Marseilles Style Spicy Clams and Mussels.