Marseilles, France 1975. Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) is a successful juvenile judge in the French justice department. His excellent record brings him to the attention of the Organized Crime division where he is to head the investigation to take down drug kingpin Gaetan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) and the criminal organization called “The Connection.”
Director and co-writer Cedric Jimenez (with co-scribe Audrey Diwan) brings us a bookend to the William Friedkin 1971 crime classic, “The French Connection,” but seen through a Gallic POV. We first meet Judge Pierre as he decides the fate of a young runaway girl strung out on heroine. He is appalled by her plight and addiction and his promotion to be a magistrate in Organized Crime unit is the perfect catalyst to bring down the Marseilles heroine industry headed by Tany Zampa.
“The Connection” is a taut cat-and-mouse crime drama where just who is the cat and who is the mouse keeps shifting. It is also the story of two sides of the same coin, with Pierre the good side and Tany the bad. That the two actors portraying the judge and the crime boss also bear a striking likeness helps to reinforce the ying and yan of the players on opposite sides of the war. Both men, too, are dedicated to their families, further blurring the lines of difference between judge and criminal.
The filmmakers do an excellent job in conveying the look and feel of late 70s/early 80s Marseilles in both costume, period vehicles and set design. The city is depicted as bright, sunny and inviting and, at the same time, dangerous and dark. This fine production compliments the first-rate performances by Dujardin, Lellouche and the rest of the well-played cast. I have followed Jean Dujardin since “OSS 117, Cairo: Nest of Spies (2016)” – a hilarious Bond spoof whose character actually preceded Ian Fleming’s famous 007 – where he proved his comedy chops and “The Artist” which earned him an Oscar. Lellouche, on the other hand is not so nearly familiar to me, but with “The Connection” I want to see more.
Whereas “The French Connection” is a gritty action packed crime thriller with great dialog – “Did you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie” – “The Connection” is more sophisticated in look and style and depth of characters. It is a modern look at a real life crime drama that took place four decades ago and gives it life in the new millennium. I give it an A-.
When Marseilles Juvenile Magistrate Pierre Michel ("The Artist's" Jean Dujardin sporting vintage sideburns) is promoted to Organized Crime to investigate La French, new partner Lucien (Bernard Blancan, "Leaving") has his doubts, but Michel is passionate about stopping the ruination and violence wrought by the heroin trade of "The Connection."
Cowriter (with Audrey Diwan)/director Cédric Jimenez's dad was a restaurateur abutting a bar owned by the brother of the man Michel was investigating and so when his producer asked him what he wanted to do for his second film, he described this ambitious tale, the Marseilles counterpart to the events depicted in the NYC set "The French Connection." Spanning the half dozen years from 1975 to Michel's assassination in 1981, Jimenez's film is a dual character study of men on either side of the law set amidst a wide-ranging investigation which itself is set within a corrupt system. Dujardin gives a dogged yet vulnerable performance in this stylish, complex thriller.
Michel approaches his new job with humility, asking to be instructed in mob procedure (which Jimenez presents in a Scorsese-esque montage). Turns out, its his past experience counseling teenaged drug addicts that gives him a foothold in the impenetrable ring run by Gaëtan 'Tany' Zampa (Gilles Lellouche, "Little White Lies," 2010's "Point Blank") when a beaten up Lily (Pauline Burlet, "La Vie en Rose," "The Past") arrives to tell her him boyfriend tried to pass her along to one of Zampa's thugs. With these two names, Pierre begins to trace connections.
The first raid he leads, thinking he's IDed Zampa's lab within the home of Charles Peretti (Georges Neri), only turns up the man in his Jacuzzi and some bags of salami. It also marks him as a threat, warnings issued via the discovery of Lily's boyfriend in the drink and the reformed addict's death by overdose. Clearly pained by Lily's death, Michel only becomes more resolute, shooting back across the bow by donating 5K in payoff money to a Marseilles rehab center. His weakening of Zampa's rein is further reinforced when a rival, Crazy Horse (Benoît Magimel, "The Piano Teacher"), moves in on Zampa's territory, but Pierre's attempt to nab Zampa using him as bait is stonewalled. When Michel is told by José Alvarez (Guillaume Gouix, "Midnight in Paris") that colleague Ange Mariette (Gérard Meylan, "Rapt") is heading the corrupt Corsican Cops with ties to Mayor Gaston Deferre (Féodor Atkine, "Populaire"), his attempt to face the issue head on gets him thrown off the case. It will take a Socialist turn in the French political tide and a tip from a NYC inspector to get him back on.
Although Jimenez has spoken about his leads' resemblance to their real life counterparts, what is most notable is how they resemble each other in both hairline and profile. The filmmaker illustrates each man's home life as one where wives are cherished and children lovingly raised. Lellouche convinces that his public display of extravagant gifts isn't just for show - when Zampa's empire begins to crumble we see his pain in struggling to keep Krypton, Frances biggest disco, afloat as Christiane's (Mélanie Doutey, "The Flower of Evil") playground, his fond indulgence of her excessive taste palpable. On the flip side, Dujardin shows the strain of maintaining a loving family life while his mind is mostly elsewhere, Céline Sallette's ("Rust and Bone," BBCA's 'The Returned') sexy, supportive wife worn down by his workload. In their couple of scenes together, Dujardin and Lellouche, light and dark but so alike, make the screen crackle with their intensity.
Marseilles comes to life in all its outward sunshine and inward rot, Laurent Tangy's 35mm cinematography vibrant and urgent. Jimenez and his editor Sophie Reine ("Populaire") juggle complex story strands without losing a thread, the two hour plus film beautifully paced. The film's soundtrack is indicative of its time and place with French covers of "Boots" and "I Got You Babe" giving way to Blondie. Guillaume Roussel's cooly hip acoustic guitar and synth score is the perfect accompaniment.
Where Friedkin's classic was a gritty docudrama featuring a scuzzy protagonist and lots of action, Jimenez's work is slicker, his Michel a more presentable character playing more cerebral games. The two stylistically different films would make a great double bill.
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