by Matt Levine
With its roving camerawork, story of cops and criminals playing the same capitalist game, and wall-to-wall soundtrack of period rock and roll hits, it’s clear that The Connection aspires to Martin Scorsese’s propulsive gangland milieu—but all the movie can muster is a second-rate knockoff of Heat (1995) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970). Yes, the connection of the title is that “French connection”—the lucrative heroin trade based out of Marseille that, since the early 1960s, supplied the United States with much of its product, not to mention turned the seaside city of Marseille into a den of vice. It’s unfortunate for The Connection, though, that it is implicitly linked to William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), which, with its scuzzy lead performance by Gene Hackman and some of the most feverish action scenes ever put on film, is superior to The Connection in every way.
Director: Cédric Jimenez
Producer: Ilan Goldman
Writers: Cédric Jimenez, Audrey Diwan
Cinematographer: Laurent Tangy
Editor: Sophie Reine
Music: Guillaume Roussel
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette, Mélanie Doutey, Benoît Magimel, Guillaume Gouix, Bruno Todeschini, Féodor Atkine, Moussa Maaskri, Pierre Lopez, Eric Collado, Cyril Lecomte, Jean-Pierre Sanchez, Georges Neri
Premiere: September 10, 2014 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: May 15, 2015
US Distributor: Drafthouse Films
It doesn’t seem like it at first, though, as the film begins with a vivid assassination: set to Lykke Li’s moody “Jerome” (a bit out of place, since the first scene takes place in 1969), two men on a motorcycle swoop down one of Marseille’s gorgeous seaside roads, then stop to plug a man in a luxury sedan, shooting him six times. The fluid camerawork and blunt violence of this opening start things off with a literal and figurative bang, but as soon as the archival footage from French news programs starts playing, the movie starts to go downhill. Utilizing the kind of editing that has a maximum attention span of five seconds, director-cowriter Cédric Jimenez and editor Sophie Reine introduce us to newly-appointed organized crime magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) and local drug kingpin Tany Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), interspersed into the archival footage with only a modicum of coherency.
Jimenez and co-writer Audrey Diwan make the decision to focus on the mano a mano between these two men—their parallels as much as their differences. Both family men with a compassionate core, albeit prone to sudden fits of violence and despair, Michel and Zampa are simply doing their work, playing the roles into which they’ve been thrust for one reason or another, like the stoic, nihilistic characters of a Jean-Pierre Melville film. The similarities between Michel and Zampa are crudely laid out for the audience by a number of crosscutting montages that explicitly tell us how alike these men are: instead of observing the characters and interpreting them on our own, the editing does all the thinking for us (look, criminals can blithely play with their children too!). In theory, the attempt to turn The Connection into a titanic clash between two men on opposite sides of the social-justice spectrum is intriguing, but neither of them are particularly interesting people, or at least the movie does everything it can to hide their uniqueness from us. In Michael Mann’s Heat, by contrast, when Robert De Niro and Al Pacino’s characters finally meet about halfway through the 170-minute movie, it feels like two forces of nature coming together, both of them symbolizing larger cultural mechanisms; in The Connection, by contrast, when Michel and Zampa first meet on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, their interaction feels like something you might see on Law & Order.
The term “plot-driven” was basically coined to describe movies like this one: everything is so beholden to plot, to moving the action forward as quickly as possible, that there’s no time for character study or personality. Scenes lurch suddenly into the next with no fluidity and no attention to composition; the number of montages spewing narrative information at the audience is embarrassing (one of them even has close-ups of pages being torn out of a calendar—the laziest possible way to convey time passing in a movie). We never learn anything about the men’s backstories, much less the character quirks that might make them resemble real people—an especially disastrous oversight for a movie about two larger-than-life figures. The women in the film, meanwhile, are exclusively harried housewives or glamorous molls, asked to do nothing but look consternated as their men race off to their lives of crime. While a number of characters experience tragedy in the film’s climax, they fail to affect us emotionally because these people have never seemed like anything more than cinematic constructs. Thematically, meanwhile, the movie is just as paper-thin: aside from the obvious role that wealth and glamour plays in Zampa’s drug empire, The Connection hardly even tries to place this story in the context of global capitalism.
A further issue, presumably unintentional, is that Zampa is an infinitely more compelling character than Michel—who, as the dedicated policeman, should hypothetically be the audience surrogate. Michel is so unambiguously heroic, so obstinate in his quest for justice, that his honorability starts to seem mundane. When Michel is bribed $5,000 by one of Zampa’s goons, Michel accepts it only to immediately donate it to a drug-rehab center in Marseille. Even when Michel uses questionable tactics like wire-tapping and illegal searches, his efforts are instantaneously seen as productive and beneficial; while such a moral gray area could have added some much-needed nastiness to Michel’s character, the efficacy of such actions turns into an implicit condonation of police despotism. At least some of the blame goes to Jean Dujardin, whose charisma and square-jawed heroism work well when he’s playing a silent film actor (The Artist) or a parody of James Bond (the OSS 117 films), though they make him seem somewhat cartoonish when he’s playing a “realistic” character. A breakdown in a phone booth, during which Michel calls his wife and breaks down crying, seems much too “actorly” to be moving, although the histrionics of this scene could be attributed more to Jimenez. In any case, when the plight of the heroin-peddling criminal is exponentially more poignant than the fate met by the dutiful police officer, your movie has a serious dramatic problem.
Despite all this, I still feel compelled to give The Connection a decent star rating, which first of all suggests the meaninglessness of star ratings, and secondly points to the intermittent genre thrills that the movie offers. The Connection works in the same way that a made-for-TV police procedural works, which is far less than the filmmakers presumably intended, though at least it’s something. Even if the editing is borderline inept and Guillaume Roussel's original music is unbearably maudlin (and crops up at frequently inappropriate moments), the camerawork is undeniably riveting and the Marseille setting provides a ravishing backdrop. Paired with expert art direction (Patrick Schmitt) and set decoration (Willy Margery and Pascalle Willame), the '70s milieu really comes alive in vividly grungy fashion. Finally, as Tany Zampa, Gilles Lellouche provides the subtlety and element of danger missing from Dujardin’s investigator; as with roles in Tell No One (2006) and the Mesrine films, Lellouche displays a talent for evoking compelling characters in genre exercises. These slight pleasures, though they wage battle against the movie’s significant flaws, turn The Connection into an agreeable time-waster, especially for those who love crime movies. Compared to the existentialism of Jean-Pierre Melville or the operatic intensity of Michael Mann, The Connection is a meek imitator; but this ripped-from-the-headlines story of cops and criminals, grit and glamour, is at least partially irresistible.