New York City in the early 1970’s was awash in heroin. It was not only the recreational drug of choice, it was the dealer’s and mobsters import of choice too, and almost all of it came from Turkey by way of France. The purification process and smuggling of the heroin, hundreds of kilos at a time, all came out of the port city of Marseille, and the NYPD battle against this criminal nightmare was memorialized in the terrific, Academy-Award winning The French Connection.
Picking up the story four years after the 1971 movie, the newly released The Connection (French title Le French) tells the story of what happened on French soil and how the French police, notably dedicated magistrate Pierre Michel (played in the movie by Jean Dujardin), brought down Gaëtan Zampa and his drug-funded Marseille mob.
I really wanted to like The Connection. Tied to one of the best crime movies ever made (The French Connection won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Gene Hackman who is great as the unconventional cop Popeye Doyle) it seems like a terrific premise, telling the “other side” of the story. Unfortunately, there are two films competing for our attention, a movie that’s overtly tied to The French Connection, complete with similar drug-stuffed automobiles and similar cinematography, and a second, more interesting movie about how Michel and his small team of loyal cops spent years fighting not just Zampa and his drug lords, but corruption within the French police force and government too.
The Connection is at its best when we see how the Michel and his fellow cops keep hammering on the untouchable Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), his enforcer and the mobster Crazy Horse (Benoit Magimel) who seeks to take over Marseille once Zampa’s iron grip on the city’s drug activities starts to weaken. Narratively, it’s also impossible to miss the parallels between good-cop Michel and mobster Zampa, from their appearance to their mannerisms, to the tension between them and their wives.
Michel wrestles with his devotion to the job, passionate to crush the mob and stop the tide of ruined people — as represented in the film by the junkie Lily (Pauline Burlet) — but his wife Jacqueline (Céline Sallette) just wants to have him home and attentive to their family, with predictibly rocky results. There’s a notable scene where Pierre calls his wife from a phone booth and collapses into tears. Powerful stuff, the drive to make a mark versus the yearning for love.
For his own part, Zampa has unexpected depths in his devotion for his wife Christiane (Mélanie Doutey), something that becomes clear in the latter portion of the film when we learn about the financial underpinnings of her nightclub “Krypton”. Same conflict, different experiences.
Based on real people and the crimes and police activities of the 1970’s in Marseilles, The Connection proves to have a jarring, upsetting last reel, an ending that leaves the viewer adrift. But life doesn’t always have a neat, happy ending, as we all know.
With all these limitations I still recommend The Connection. It’s over 2 hours of subtitled French, so be prepared, but if you appreciate classic 70’s crime dramas and have ever been curious about what happened in France during The French Connection’s era, it’s a rewarding movie that does a splendid job of recreating a rough, gritty era.