There has been consistent overlap among crime films from France and the United States. Jean Pierre Meville was inspired by American noir cinema, for example, while Jules Dassin made thrillers within the Hollywood system before being blacklisted and emigrating to France. For decades the two countries influenced each other in terms of fashion, attitudes, and even moviemaking technique, so the French thriller The Connection is just the latest example. Director and co-screenwriter Cédric Jimenez owes a lot to American crimes movies, and while he does not reach the heights of our best, The Connection is tough, smart, and above all energetic.
The film’s title is a reference to the same scheme as The French Connection, the 1971 William Friedkin classic thriller. Gangsters in Turkey and France worked together to smuggle heroin into the United States, and the arrangement was successful for decades, even if it left a hefty body count. The Connection has more basis in reality – the main characters were all real people – although I’m sure Jimenez took significant, borderline ridiculous dramatic license.
Jean Dujardin stars as Pierre Michel, a driven magistrate who transfers to the organized crime division of Marseilles in 1975. His proverbial white whale is Tany Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), an Italian gangster who streamlines his operation so that the cops can barely follow the path of his product. Over the course of several years, Michel and Zampa play an elaborate game of cat and mouse, with increasingly dangerous stakes, and soon their respective egos matter more than justice or wealth.
Jimenez films The Connection with a relentless mix of verve and impatience. There are many bravura sequences, including shoot-outs and chase scenes, there is gleeful tension over whether his camera should cut away or focus on the badass beauty of his sun-soaked compositions. The introductory scene is a motorcycle chase, set against the French Riviera, and it ends with a flurry of brutal violence (a gangster empties his pistol into his victim, then switches to a revolver and empties that, too).
All of this would not necessarily be an obvious riff on Scorsese, except Jimenez also includes a soundtrack of pop songs and sequences where Zampa strikes a curious balance between charm and savage anger. The Scorsese influence is not a criticism: Jimenez is a talented filmmaker in his own right, and it’s oddly comforting how there is a particular cinematic grammar to organized crime that now transcends nationality. While watching The Connection, I felt an immediate kinship with the material and characters since it’s such familiar territory. It’s like meeting a stranger, only to realize their handshake is warm and familiar.
There is nothing original about this stuff, so the lead actors elevate it beyond the usual arcs of a crime saga. Dujardin, who won an Oscar for The Artist, plays a wholly different type of character. Michel may be charming, but he’s also a single-minded zealot with an addictive personality. Still, the strangest thing about Michel is his job description: I’m admittedly unfamiliar with the nuance of the French justice system, but his magistrate functions more like a cop than an attorney. Michel is there for every arrest, he leads the investigation against Zampa, and he performs every interrogation of the drug dealers they capture. The only things he’s missing are a badge and a gun, and it’s to Dujardin’s credit that Michel is a plausible, flawed hero.
Lellouche, who played the wide-eyed innocent in the French thriller Point Blank, plays Zampa like a tough businessman who takes comfort knowing that he’s smarter than everyone with whom he interacts. There is an early scene where he intimidates a weakling – an obvious throwback to countless violent films – yet there’s no sadistic zeal to Lellouche’s performance. Midway through The Connection, the leads have a chilling scene together atop a mountain. They’re sizing each other up, of course, and they both conclude they underestimated their rival. Like Michael Mann’s Heat, that tension is what carries The Connection, although the characters never speak after that.
Speaking of Heat, the most noteworthy thing about Michael Mann’s classic is the women in those films are given depth that’s atypical of the genre. The Connection does not share the same curiosity about its female characters: both Michel and Zampa have wives, yet they’re treated more like a narrative afterthought. In fact, the women get such perfunctory attention that it would have been better if Jimenez abandoned those subplots altogether. This is a film that aspires to be a transcendent, prestigious epic, yet has the spirit and ruthless efficiency of a genre exercise. Had he trimmed the fat from its two hour plus running time, The Connection would still end on a note of irony that’s so bitter and cruel it’s somehow funny again.