Apart from advertising a well-known brand of coffee alongside Hollywood celebrity George Clooney, Oscar winning actor Jean Dujardin has been largely absent from French screens. Now he’s back with the stylish thriller La French set in Marseille in the 1970s. Comparisons with The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle, are hard to ignore, but Cédric Jimenez’s film kicks off a good five years after the release of William Freidkin’s 1971 classic. And La French concentrates on the true story of Judge Pierre Michel who fought relentlessly to destroy the drug lords who were wreaking havoc on the southern port city. In a hommage to classic French crime films by directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jacques Deray and Henri Verneuil, Jimenez immaculately recreates the look and feel of the period to construct a tense, multi-layered drama.
Michel (Dujardin) is a young investigating judge from Metz who is transferred to Marseille to tackle the city’s growing drug problem. He decides to go head-to-head with the French Connection, the local mafia running the exportation of heroin across the Atlantic to the US. In particular he targets Gaetan Zampa, (Gilles Lellouche) the kingpin of the drug trade who has always escaped prosecution. Ignoring warnings from his colleagues to leave Zampa alone, the judge turns to increasingly unorthodox methods to try and trap his prey.
La French largely ignores the violence, betrayal and counter-betrayal usually detailed in mafia movies to focus on the relationship between Michel and Zampa. In one scene, an American police officer describes Michel as the ‘French cowboy’ and the story could indeed be lifted from a classic western with the moral, law abiding sheriff struggling against local hoodlum to bring peace to a lawless town. Although this is a complicated story with an intricate web of characters, Jimenez keeps it simple by allowing the audience and the judge to discover together just how dangerous and impossible it is for Michel to fulfil his mission.
Dujardin is one of those rare actors equally at home with comedy and straight roles. La French’
s retro look with the big sideburns and polyester suits fits him perfectly and his Judge Michel is sympathetic and couragious. And his stand-off with Lellouche has provoked comparaison with Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Deray’s crime saga Borsalino
. Benoit Magimel as Zampa’s sidekick Le Fou
and Guillaume Gouix as the police officer José Alvarez also deserve special mention. Only Céline Sallette as Michel’s wife Jacqueline disappoints. She was excellent earlier this year both in Tony Gatliff’s Geronimo
and Cédric Kahn’s La Vie Sauvage
, but is definitely underused here.