The “New Age” of American cinema, from the late 1960’s to the early 80’s, was an era so rich with treasures it is almost impossible to rank them in any fashion. Chief among the masterpieces was THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) which, beyond standing alone as a shining jewel in William Friedkin’s crown, set the tone for many ‘real-life’ police/crime dramas to come; think SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON and TAXI DRIVER. Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is such a compelling character and impossible to forget, it’s hard to imagine that there could be anything to add to the story than what we’ve already seen. But wait dear viewer…how short sighted we can be? The French side of the story is far more elegant, far more complex and far more rife with interpersonal nuance than our American version. Culturally that should come as no surprise. Director Cédric Jimenez sculpts his characters with a deft hand; with barely containable restraint and razor sharp action, he builds the story into a perfectly paced and complex symphony.
THE CONNECTION tells of the heart of France’s drug cartel in Marseilles, headed in a large part by Gaëtano “Tany” Zampa, and the Magistrate Pierre Michel who ultimately brought him to justice. Beyond Zampa existed a many armed entity which grew to be the largest supplier of heroin in the U.S. during the later half of the 20th Century. If you have not seen THE FRENCH CONNECTION in some years – or at all (God forbid) worry not, your memory will spring back and your understanding will be enhanced, although know this: THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a highly fictionalized account of an earlier significant drug seizure and arrest in New York City. Connected – yes, but THE CONNECTION picks up the story in the mid-1970s and gives an accurate, fact based retelling of the cast of characters orchestrating the era’s farthest reaching drug empire. The film stands in its own glorious light, not as a foreign step-child to Friedkin’s earlier composition.
Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle was a fictitious detective based up on the real Eddie Egan, who in 1961 seized a record 112 pounds of heroin, temporarily stemming the tidal wave of drugs flowing into the States from Europe. Zampa and Michel are real men brought to life with nobility, intelligence and deeply gifted acting by Gilles Lellouche (MESRINE PART 1: KILLER INSTINCT) and Jean Dujardin (THE ARTIST, THE MONUMENTS MEN) respectively. The glittering portrayal of Marseilles in the 70’s is fantastic and the production design is beautifully crafted without being overdone. The breadth of the drug ring is staggering in its multinational composition and the cast of characters is fascinating. Zampa and his ‘family’ govern the city from its restaurants to its discos, exacting its revenue and taking its due with style and terror.
Crime stories, when well executed, are thrilling and engaging because most of us are just plain old law abiding folk, safely peering into a dark world we will never enter from the comfort of our seat. We are yet more seduced when the bad guys are charming, handsome, and successful. While the chronicle itself is utterly absorbing, what gives the film far greater allure and depth is the relationship between Zampa and Michel. The men do in fact have a relationship and while they stand on opposing sides of the law they understand each other innately and are not so very different from one another. Zampa fiercely defends and protects his assets, his creation, his aim and his family with the methods he feels necessary. Michel is his mirror image often bending the law to attain the result he so completely believes in and which consumes his every waking hour. Like the character of Robert Graysmith in 2007’s ZODIAC, one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s first beautifully and disturbingly obsessed characters, Michel loses all perspective in his singular, deeply embedded drive to bring down Zampa. Dujardin’s portrayal if him is masterful and we are helplessly drawn into his psyche. The characters, the setting – the era – all weave a picture exceptionally rich with desire, drive and power. It is without question one of the best films of the year, if not the decade, and Cédric Jimenez is a filmmaker with a golden path ahead of him.(5 / 5)
Director: Cédric Jimenez
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette, Mélanie Doutey, Benoît Magimel, Guillaume Gouix, Féodor Atkine
Running Time: 135 minutes
The Connection Movie Review