Monday, May 11, 2015

The Connection: Marseilles in the 1970s

In the dark days of 1970s, way before Giuliani, three men essentially waged a two-front war on the so-called French Connection. Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso (a.k.a. Popeye Doyle and Buddy Russo) battled the drug ring in New York, while Magistrate Pierre Michel crusaded against them in Marseilles. Forty-some years after William Friedkin’s The French Connection told the New York cops’ story Michel finally gets his own big screen treatment in Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

While a Magistrate (that peculiarly French office of investigating judge) in the juvenile crime division, Michel witnessed the devastating consequences of the drug trade first-hand. When promoted to felony narcotics, his zeal and integrity surprised a lot of people, particularly honest coppers like Aimé-Blanc. Michel makes no secret of his hope to dethrone Gaetan “Tany” Zampa, the presumably untouchable boss of the Connection’s Marseilles operation. Lacking proof against Zampa, Michel tries to whittle away at his organization, declaring open war on all his underlings.

Naturally, as Michel’s war against Zampa escalates, things get rather ugly. Michel finds his plans constantly undermined by corruption in the Marseilles police department and mayor’s office. However, Zampa also starts to feel the heat from former associates-turned-rivals, who try to move in on the weakened kingpin’s action. The most erratic of these upstarts will be the aptly named “Crazy Horse,” who will cause no end of headaches for Michel as well.

For fans of gangster movies, The Connection is like Christmas and your birthday all rolled together. It is obsessively detailed and compulsively dot-connecting. Art director Patrick Schmitt’s period décor is spot on, but the hedonistic Marseilles backdrop gives the film a vibe more closely akin to Boogie Night than Friedkin’s grungy street-level Oscar winner.

Not just a strong likeness of Michel, Jean Dujardin has the right over-sized presence for the honest Magistrate as well. As seen in The Artist and the OSS 117 franchise, Dujardin can play it scrupulously earnest and square, in a way that is completely genuine and not the least bit ironic. Despite his bouts of righteous indignation and the ultimately tragic dimensions of the tale, there is something Capra-esque about Michel that he successfully personifies. Likewise, Gilles Lellouche (one of the best in the business) expresses the ferocity concealed beneath Zampa’s ice cold façade. Jimenez and Audrey Diwan’s screenplay never valorizes the gangster, per se, but it unmistakably implies those who succeeded him would be even worse.

Decades after the fact, The Connection still feels rather bold for its willingness to name names. It makes it explicitly clear to viewers the same Marseilles that was delivering votes for Mitterrand also protected and abetted the notorious international drug syndicate. Indeed, Gaston Deferre, the Mayor of Marseilles, who would serve as Mitterrand’s Interior Minister (because obviously his city was so squeaky clean), plays a critical but maddeningly ambiguous role in the film.

An unusually ambitious sophomore film, The Connection is sprawling in scope but profoundly jaded in its attitude, exactly like some of the best cinema from the era it depicts. Highly recommended, it opens this Friday (5/15) in New York, at the Landmark Sunshine.