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Non-Review Review: La French (The Connection)

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

La French (aka The Connection) looks and sounds beautiful.

Working with cinematographer Laurent Tangy, director Cédric Jimenez manages to capture the scenic beauty of seventies Marseilles. The classic architecture, the sea views, even the hot night spots all look absolutely stunning. Le French manages to capture the crisp feeling of the late seventies without ever feeling stylised or staged. Similarly, Jimenez manages to pull together a beautifully evocative soundtrack, with songs as distinct as Call Me and This Bitter Earth helping to underscore emotionally-charged sequences and giving the film a sense of style and taste.

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La French is a stylishly-constructed crime thriller that stretches from the south of France to New York and back again, a family loosely inspired by the infamous “French Connection” that fed drugs into France and overseas to the United States. However, despite its obvious overlap with William Friedkin’s The French Connection, it seems like Jimenez owes more to the work of filmmakers like Michael Mann or Martin Scorcese, constructing a crime epic that flows beautifully and effortlessly, with an impressive soundtrack complimenting a dynamic visual style.

This is perhaps the biggest problem with La French, a sense that there might actually be too much style – that the film may occasionally feel a little too hollow or detached from its twin leads. However, Jimenez cleverly casts Jean Dujardin and Gilles Lellouche in the lead roles, who help anchor the film with a sense of humanity that only occasionally gets lost in the film’s beautifully-crafted production.

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Indeed, despite its setting and subject matter, La French arguably owes more to Heat than to The French Connection. Dujardin might be the more popular international star, but La French divides its attention between Dujardin and Lellouche. Dujardin is Pierre Michel, the former Children’s Magistrate who finds himself tasked with stopping the drug trade into (and out of) Marseilles. Lellouche is Gaëtan ‘Tany’ Zampa, the head of “the French”, the gang responsible for most of the region’s illegal activity and its growing drug problem.

Michel and Zampa spend most of the film at odds with one another. Michel is the cop who might be addicted to the chase, while Zampa is the untouchable kingpin who finds himself struggling against the label of “thug” and with the problems of managing his sprawling organisation – memorably described as “an octopus with tentacles everywhere.” Michel and Zamba cross paths on a couple of occasions, but only share a single extended scene together in the middle of the film – with each trading barbs as the sun sets on the Mediterranean.

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To be fair, writers Audrey Diwan and Cédric Jimenez avoid at least one major crime movie cliché. There is a minimum amount of mutual respect between Michel and Zamba. The two do not regard one another as worthy adversaries. When Zamba accuses Michel of showing disrespect, Michel is quite candid. “No respect for you.” There is no life advice traded over cups of coffee, no reflection on how the two are really very alike. There is no sense that the two might have been friends in another life.

Instead, there is thinly-veiled contempt and hatred. Michel knows first-hand the damage of the work that Zamba does, while Zamba is insulted that Michel refuses to acknowledge him as anything other than a “thug.” It is a nice little subversion in a story that is otherwise fairly linear and straightforward. Michel is presented very much as a stock movie cop – a (probably literal) thrill addict desperately invested in the game that he plays to the detriment of everything around him. Zamba is a typical gangster – a violent individual with delusions of civilisation and society.

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However, while the script for La French seems to define its two leads as stereotypes, Dujardin and Lellouche dig deep into their characters. Dujardin is pitch-perfect as the embattled police officer struggling against impossible odds and deeply-rooted power structures. Lellouche makes his drug kingpin almost sympathetic, giving an air of desperation that bleeds out from under those expensive suits and behind all those velvet ropes. These are two nuanced and fully-formed performances that enrich the film around them.

Cédric Jimenez’s direction does a lot of the rest of the work. Running two-hours-and-a-quarter, La French moves promptly without every feeling rushed. The film sets up and telegraphs all of its major plot points quite cleanly and efficiently, conveying information through stylised montages and cuts that have an infectious confidence to them. La French is stylish without ever being showy; confident without ever being arrogant. The camera is constantly moving, but is never dizzying or disorientating.

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La French is a wonderful crime thriller anchored by two superb central performances and wonderfully staged direction.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

2 Responses

  1. Glad you got to this one. I haven’t enjoyed a gangster movie this much since Public Enemies.

    As far as Lellouche goes, I really like it when movies manage to write a bad guy who feels fully human and still believe that he’s the bad guy. Hollywood often seems to have trouble walking the line between puppy-kicking Card Carrying Villainy (Capone in The Untouchables) and Not So Different/Worthy Adversary status (Dillinger in Public Enemies). Not that I didn’t enjoy either movie, but… still. This approach was a nice break from both of these.

    • I did like it, a lot. It is a beautifully stylish film with two great lead performances. I really loved Lelouche because – as you point out – it is a very nuanced performance.

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