In 1972 William Friedkin’s The French Connection became the first R-rated film to win Best Picture. The film, which also garnered Gene Hackman the Best Actor trophy and picked up awards in editing and screenwriting, followed New York City police officer Popeye Doyle as he attempted to stop the flow of heroin from Marseille France to New York. Though the character of Popeye was fictional the powerful French drug syndicate was ripped right from the headlines and was indeed responsible for filling the streets of New York with illegal narcotics for much of the mid '70s. Now, 44 years after the release of The French Connection, a companion piece, told from the perspective of the Marseille law enforcement that attempted to curb the export of heroin from their city in the '70s, arrives in theaters.
The Connection, which was directed by Cedric Jimenez (who was, in fact, born in Marseille during the mid-70s), is a strong and engaging entry into the true crime genre that often feels—thanks to the 35mm cinematography—like it was pulled from another era of cinema. The story follows real-life magistrate (kind of like a judge who can act like a cop) Pierre Michel (Academy Award Winner Jean Dujardin), who is tasked with taking down the Marseille drug syndicate and the mob boss who controls it, Gaetan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche). Of course, like most crime bosses during the first act of a movie, Tany is untouchable and protected by a crew of very close associates (yes, there is a fat guy) so Michel must resort to a series of unorthodox methods to take him down.
Both Dujardin and Lellouche give very compelling performances and the best thing about this film is how neither one plays his character to an extreme. Dujardin plays his hero as an obsessive (and former gambling addict) who uses law enforcement to get a rush similar to those using the heroin he is attempting to eliminate while Lellouche portrays his villain as a businessman who is just as likely to have a violent freakout as he is to shed a tear over a lost loved one (indeed Tany seems to have a better relationship with his family than Michel does). The depiction of the hero and villain as neither wholly bad nor good plays into the idea that life and crime occupy a moral gray zone—a popular theme of '70s cinema. This motif is further solidified visually by the fact that Dujardin and Lellouche, with their slick backed black hair and angular jaws, look so similar to one another.
Though Jimenez clearly feels a deep connection to the events of this film (and the many painstaking period details show that) he often overly relies on the clichés of the crime genre without finding a new or unique spin on them. The worst of this is his portrayal of Michel’s wife (Celine Sallette) as a long suffering woman who can only seem to complain about how much her husband works and how dangerous it is. It’s a shame that he couldn’t apply the same nuance and complexities to her as he did his male protagonists.
However, the director’s reliance on genre clichés isn’t always towards the detriment of the film. Jimenez has clearly studied the works of Martin Scorsese and many of his borrowed flourishes—such as the way the camera glides through the mob’s headquarters, introducing us to each character and the violence they generate—provide some of the most enjoyable and visually engaging moments of the film.
New York City during the 1970s is often depicted as a filthy wasteland over run by drug dealers, addicts, and pimps. This is why it is all the more interesting to have this film take place in Marseille, a beautiful metropolitan port city surrounded by palatial views of the Mediterranean coast. The magnificence of the city contrasts nicely with the violence and corruption that lies beneath and reminds us that beyond the city that never sleeps lies other worlds and heroes that are once connected and yet entirely foreign.