There’s an inherent fascination watching how a different country presents a series of events, righting the wrongs or emphasizing a particular level of victimhood. Director Cedric Jimenez and co-screenwriter Audrey Diwan aren’t necessarily interested in that, although that is a level within, but hearken back to when it all happened. It makes sense considering The Connection itself is a continuation of William Friedkin’s The French Connection, albeit presenting an all-French point of view. However, the players and the game are still the same in a world where no one truly wins or loses in the drug game.
During the mid-1970s, heroin bursts its way onto American shores through the help of the “French connection,” a drug pipeline centered in the town of Marseille. Newly apointed magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) is tasked with finding the leader of the French connection and bringing him to justice.
It isn’t hard drawing comparisons between The Connection and other movies if you’ve seen any drug thriller from the 1970s and beyond, from the aforementioned French Connection to American Gangster. Michel is a man with a moral compass trying to shake off his gambling addict past; his wife (Celine Sallette) wants him to spend more time with his family; there’s talk of corruption within the police force and the highest echelons of government. Jimenez isn’t reinventing the wheel; he’s creating a movie fans of those prior films will enjoy.
Because of its connection to Friedkin’s 1971 film, it makes sense that nearly everything about the movie screams of the era, right down to the Gaumont studios logo from the time reprising its role. There’s a gritty, unsettled mien to the film, as Michel becomes the stranger in a strange land, moving up from working with juvenile offenders to hunting down one of the most dangerous drug distributors in France. Filled with car chases, shootings, and the like, the world of Marseille is sufficiently dangerous and unpredictable, all working in worship of the heroin trade.
Where Jimenez and Dawn’s script soars is in the character motivations as everyone struggles to live life without getting stuck on the H-train. It’s great watching Jean Dujardin in anything, as he exudes charm even in the darkest of situations. Michel certainly wants to be a hero, but finds himself slammed back by government interference and corruption. As with most heroes in these movies, nothing ever resolves itself neatly. Other than his gambling addiction – which I wish the script continued tying alongside the heroin trade – Michel can’t seem to please his wife, Jacqueline, falling into the typical pratfalls of being too obsessed with the case and not spending time with his family.
Oddly enough, Dujardin has great rapport with the two little girls playing his daughters. The scenes with his kids show a present and playful father trying to find one sliver of happiness and hope in a bleak landscape, their preciousness springing from their brevity. Michel is the determined hero poised for a fall, whose eventual fate plays like the ending of The Departed, emphasizes how those who get what they want, don’t get it in the way they want.
Dujardin is complimented by Gilles Lellouche as drug kingpin Gaetan “Tany” Zampa. As with most movies of this genre the parallels between the hero and villain are evident: both dream of finding a way to legitimize themselves – although for Zampa it’s moving away from the drug trade – and pleasing their families. The latter seems poised to break out of the mold in Zampa’s case, but never does. There’s an obviously loving relationship between Zampa and his wife, Christiane (Melanie Doutey) with continual allusions to the facade shattering. The camera also enjoys lingering on Doutey’s face in a way that implies malevolence or at least a double-cross that’s never pulled off.
Lellouche’s Zampa won’t go into the annals of film history as the grandest drug kingpin; he’s content to send others to do his dirty work for him, but the script gives him enough motivation and lingering doubts that leave him questioning himself. Michel’s tactic is arresting everyone around Zampa, casting a net and removing all of Zampa’s allies. When the villain finally realizes he’s undone, there’s no grand “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me” moment. Instead, Zampa goes to a very human place and reacts like anyone would when they realize their entire world has crumbled. It’s a very human moment at odds with the rather masculine tone of the movie.
The Connection will satisfy those who enjoy 1970s drug/crime thrillers. It doesn’t do anything particularly innovative, but the characters are well defined, for the most part, and Dujardin and Lellouche are great fun to watch. It’s a very solid throwback that will inspire you to seek out its original inspirations.