Here is the French ‘big budget’ response to the Hollywood ‘French Connection’ films about the drugs trade in Marseilles in the 1970s and the city’s important role as the ‘processing’ centre for heroin on its way from Turkey to New York. A less high-profile French take on the story which sounds intriguing was released as Le Juge (The Judge) in France in 1984. The budget for La French is quoted by Variety as $26 million. This is modest by US standards but substantial for a European production (i.e. in a European language). French films tend to be the most expensive in Europe. La French is a mainstream crime thriller/action picture directed by Cédric Jimenez, born in Marseilles in 1976.
La French might not have made it into international distribution without the high profile of its two stars. Gilles Lelouche and Jean Dujardin are both major stars in France but Dujardin has recently begun to appear in Hollywood films following his success in The Artist (France 2011) with all its Oscar wins. Both actors, as well as Benoît Magimel (third in the credits for La French), also appeared in Guillaume Canet’s Little White Lies (France 2010) – a film I didn’t like very much, but which was technically well-made with a very starry cast. In a sense, La French is the same. It is well-made and the money spent ends up on screen with period motors and costumes. It also has a long running time (135 mins), lots of songs on the soundtrack and action sequences breaking up more dialogue heavy scenes. Because it is a polar – a crime thriller – there is more discipline in the narrative and it seems less indulgent than Little White Lies. I was engaged for the whole running time and I enjoyed watching the film and thinking about it as a polar, but afterwards I realised that it didn’t really offer anything particularly memorable. Certainly it didn’t have the intensity of Gene Hackman’s performances or the chase sequences in either of the French Connection films.
La French approaches the drugs racket in Marseilles from a different angle. Dujardin plays the ‘investigating magistrate’ Pierre Michel who takes on the task of cleaning up organised crime in Marseilles and in particular the heroin processing controlled by Gaëtan (‘Tany’) Zampa – the Lelouche part. This ‘head-to-head’ struggle is emphasised with a direct meeting between the two in a scene reminiscent of Pacino and De Niro in Heat. But the personal battle (usually between the police inspector and the gang boss) is also a strong conventional feature of the polar going back to the Jean-Pierre Melville classics of the 1960s. By personalising the struggle in this way it also opens up the possibility of roles for the wives and families of the two men. The two wives – and the wife/girlfriend of a third character, a potential ‘grass’ – at least have speaking roles in the film. However they don’t have any ‘agency’ as such and several French reviewers have bemoaned the lack of scope in the role of the magistrate’s wife Jacqueline played by the accomplished Céline Sallette. Every time I saw Jacqueline with her two small girls I thought of Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (US 1953) in which Glenn Ford’s policeman’s family is attacked by gangsters. I won’t spoil La French by telling you what does happen to Jacqueline. It is important, however, that aspects of the family melodrama come into play in the film – alongside a focus on the film policier, the ‘procedural’. This latter includes the drama of the magistrate’s lonely position – something familiar to the viewers of Engrenages, but exaggerated here with the magistrate becoming much more active in initiating police activity.
Both the family melodrama and the police procedural ‘slow down’ the action film. Elements of the procedural pop up in the French Connection films but the characters in those films have relatively little family background as such. It is the concept of ‘family’ which eventually leads La French into the discourse of police corruption that is present but less visible in the French Connection films. Zampa appears to be a Neapolitan migrant in France who deals with the Sicilian Mafia in New York. But his position in Marseilles is always threatened by the Corsicans – the ‘Union Corse’ – who otherwise control every aspect of organised crime in Marseilles. The story and the characters in the film are based on ‘real people and real events’. It is the Union Corse that in the film infiltrates the Marseilles police. I confess that I didn’t completely follow Zampa’s connection to the Corsicans. What I do know, however, is that organised crime in the polar often involves Corsican characters.
Why doesn’t the film make more impact? I think it may be that it attempts to do too much overall so that what might be interesting sequences tend to be somewhat perfunctory as the narrative has to rush through them to get to the next. There are many characters but we don’t really get ‘into’ them. Instead, we are asked to ‘stitch together’ separate small scenes in order to understand the central characters. I’m prepared to admit that lack of language fluency and cultural knowledge means that I might have missed the significance of some scenes – and possibly the use of popular music. I recognised songs but not the singers and was then taken aback to hear Townes Van Zandt over the closing credits.
Slightly disappointing in terms of what might have been, La French is nonetheless entertaining and worth the price of a ticket. Certainly it is more entertaining than most of the mainstream fare at the multiplex these days.
French polars were often made as co-productions with Italy. As a kind of tribute here’s an Italian-dubbed trailer for La French.
The French Connection is the next ‘classic matinee’ screening at HOME in Manchester (next Sunday at 12.00 and Wednesday at 13.30). The logic behind this presentation (and French Connection II a fortnight later) derives from the upcoming UK release of The Connection (France-Belgium 2014) based on the same ‘true crime’ story of major drug dealing in 1960s Marseilles as part of the movement of heroin to North America from Turkey. This 1971 feature deals with the successful seizure led by two NY narcotics cops of a large consignment of drugs smuggled into New York by a French criminal gang. It is based on a non-fiction account of the true crime with names and characters changed in Ernest Tidyman’s script.
The Movie Brats
I would suggest that there are three reasons why the The French Connection is an important film, deserving its ‘classic status’. First it is one of the most successful films produced by the so-called ‘Movie Brats’ in the early 1970s – commercially popular with audiences and critically lauded, winning five of the most important Oscars in 1972. Friedkin wasn’t named in the core group of Movie Brats and he didn’t have the film school training but like many of the younger directors in the 1950s he had entered the business as a young man and worked his way up through TV before moving into cinema films in the late 1960s when he was in his early thirties. This made him one of the older Brats alongside Francis Ford Coppola and I think the only other film by him that I’ve seen was his British picture, an adaptation of Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1969. He matched Coppola’s success with The Godfather films and The Conversation with this film and then The Exorcist in 1973. But, like Coppola, he suffered from the failure of his next couple of films, including Sorcerer, his remake of the classic Clouzot film The Wages of Fear. (Sorcerer came out in 1977 just after Star Wars and while Coppola was still working on Apocalypse Now.) The importance of the early films from the Movie Brats is that they formed part of the wider phenomenon of the ‘New Hollywood’ – the period between roughly 1965 and 1977 when the studios were losing power and new, younger directors were able to make more challenging films. In this sense two features of The French Connection stand out – its anti-hero, the thuggish but determined and focused narcotics cop ‘Popeye Doyle’, and the ‘street realism’ of the main setting in Brooklyn. These point to the second reason for the film’s importance.
There are several aspects of this move towards more realistic crime stories. It’s hard to imagine a character actor such as Gene Hackman playing the lead in a mainstream genre picture during the 1960s. When he won the Best Actor Oscar for this role Hackman was 42 years old. Yes, he’d twice been nominated as a Supporting Actor, (first in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967) but this was his first recognised ‘leading man’ success. What was also unusual about The French Connection‘s Oscar success was that it was classified as an ‘X’ in the UK (now ’18’). I’m not sure of the precise reasons for the classification in 1971 but watching the film now what is most shocking is the level of casual racism and sexism in the police force. I don’t think there are any significant speaking roles for women in the film. They are treated purely as appendages. Mainstream crime films had previously at least included girlfriends, wives, mothers – or the femme fatale – as speaking parts.
But if gender representations were skewed in this way, the streets of Brooklyn were shown in a style much closer to documentary authenticity. Not that this was necessarily the innovation that it has sometimes been claimed to be. In the late 1940s two producers in particular, Mark Hellinger and Louis de Rochemont began to make films ‘on the streets’. This seems to have independently of similar developments in Italy and the UK. One of the best films of this type was Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) which in turn inspired a legendary UK TV series in the 1950s. To get a sense of how different these films are to the ‘staged’ use of locations in Hitchcock’s films of the 1950s. The highlight of Friedkin’s film is, of course, the car chase under the elevated metro train which seems all too real. The attempt by an assassin to escape by metro is used in several French films and it is the ‘French connection’ which offers the third reason for the importance of Friedkin’s film.
France and America – partners in organised crime
The close relationship between Hollywood and French crime films is something explored in several posts on this blog. Hollywood even sometimes uses the French terms noir and policier – though not the uniquely French term polar to describe crime films more generally. Sometimes it seems like one-way traffic. French directors adapt American pulp crime novels or like Jean-Pierre Melville they pay hommage to American culture in different ways. A more recent example was the French adaptation of Harlan Coblen’s Tell No One (France 2006) French directors have also gone to the US to make their films (see the recent Blood Ties (US-France 2013). The French Connection actually begins with a short sequence in Marseilles in which we meet Fernando Rey as the local gang boss setting up the shipment to the US. Friedkin chooses to allow the French characters to actually speak French which is refreshing (though Rey’s Spanish-accented French had to be dubbed). French Connection II takes the story back to France since some of the gang escape.
Here’s Friedkin discussing shooting the film in ‘induced documentary’ style:
This was the first film I saw in Glasgow and a great way to start my festival viewing – with an intelligent and taut Italian crime film. Anime nere focuses on the ‘ndrangheta, the criminal families of Calabria in the deep south of Italy. The film begins on the waterfront in Amsterdam (which is not identified) where Luigi, one of three Carbone brothers is negotiating a major drugs deal with a Spanish group. Back on a mountain top near the Calabrian village of Africo, Luigi’s nephew Leo is fed up with his father Luciano who has opted out of crime to concentrate on the farm and his goats. Leo decides to head off on the long train journey north to Milan where he meets up with Luigi and the third brother, Rocco, the ‘accountant’ in the criminal business.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the narrative turns out to be the hot-headed Leo’s piece of minor vandalism carried out in his home village. It soon becomes clear that the Carbone’s rivals have just been looking for an excuse and a full-blown turf war is about to break out.
But it doesn’t – or at least not in the way that might be expected. This is more gangster as art film than gangster as The Godfather. Francesco Munzi’s film, based on a novel by Gioacchino Criaco is quite slow and it is deadly serious. Anyone who is a fan of the Italian TV crime series Inspector Montalbano will find this film both familiar but also disturbing. The connection is first via the actor who plays Rocco – Peppino Mazzotta – and who also plays Fazio, the Inspector’s ‘go to’ Lieutenant. But it’s also in the depiction of the desolate farms and abandoned villages of Sicily and Calabria. In the TV series it is played with some humour, but not here. There are several subtexts about the rural South and the sophisticated North and about the power of family ties and codes of honour – which of course are increasingly out of place in the global crime business.
The film doesn’t end as you might expect and throughout the violence is minimal with the worst bits off screen. But the tension is great throughout and you always expect something to happen. Vertigo are listed as UK distributors so I hope this gets into cinemas. Highly recommended if you are a fan of the European crime film – but give it a miss if you just like gunfights and sharp suits.
Titli is another important film in the gradual emergence of an ‘Independent Indian Cinema’. It represented the new strain of Indian cinema at Cannes this year and is still waiting for a release in India after festival screenings around the world. I was excited to see the film at the Leeds Festival – but disappointed in my quick scan of the audience around me by the absence of the local South Asian audience. We struggle to see Indian independents in UK cinemas and often they appear fleetingly in arthouse rather than multiplex cinemas. Titli is a debut (fiction feature) directorial outing for Kanu Behl, a graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film Institute in Kolkata. He himself is Punjabi and in the 1990s he grew up in Delhi with his parents – both actors, writers and directors. In 2007 he began an association with film festival workshops and Titli has been developed as part of a NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) Screenwriters’ Laboratory. Behl worked with Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky!, Lucky Oye! in 2008 and Banerjee is the producer on Titli, making the film the first part of a partnership between his own production company and the mainstream production house Yash Raj Films – best known for Bollywood spectaculars. Banerjee is one of the leading figures in ‘Independent Hindi Cinema’ and took his place alongside Anurag Kashyap as a director on the compendium film project Bombay Talkies.
‘Titli’ means ‘Butterfly’ in Hindi and as a name for the lead character in the film, the youngest of three brothers, it is one of the reasons why he is teased and treated as naive. But Titli has plans to escape his all male family in a Delhi colony. While his elderly father (played by the director’s father) stays in the background, his two older brothers run a racket based on violent car-jackings in conjunction with a corrupt local police chief. Played by newcomer Shashank Arora, Titli is physically weaker, but, we suspect, a little brighter, than his brothers. The eldest brother Vikram, played by Ranvir Shorey (a comic actor in the other performances I’ve seen) is a terrifying brute here with the actor having piled on extra flab. Titli wants to escape and the rest of the family want enough capital to start a legitimate ‘cover’ business. But when the latest car-jacking goes wrong, losing everyone’s cash, Titli is chosen to be the means of recovery – by marrying him off to a young woman who could also be used in the family ‘business’. But the chosen bride (a suspiciously pretty young woman from a seemingly more established family) has plans of her own and she and Titli share a desire to escape. That’s enough spoilers. The script is well thought through and with good performances all round and lively camerawork, Titli is very successful. I’ve seen festival reviews which refer to violence ‘off-screen’ but I found that what was ‘on-screen’ was quite violent enough. I think that the preferred term for characters like Vikram is ‘a goon’ and he uses a hammer as a weapon of choice. This kind of violence is mainstream in India so I clench my teeth and sometimes close my eyes.
I want to recommend Omar’s review of the film on his new blog at Movie Mahal. He suggests that Titli marries the crime film and the traditional Hindi family melodrama – but of course here removes the mother figure. The new wife comes into an entirely masculine home (which production designers made even more claustrophobic by altering the rooms in the ‘on location’ dwelling). The second woman who exerts some external control over the family is Vikram’s divorced wife who demands her dues and causes further financial pressure. As well as this mixing of genres, Omar also notes the possible mixing of filming styles with elements of neo-realism feeding into the action sequences. I’ve seen references to improvised dialogue for many scenes and also the suggestion that the film was shot on 16mm to achieve a grittier feel. Neo-realism does move a narrative forward on the basis of simple but devastating problems associated with lack of money but what is important in Titli is perhaps that Titli the character is something of a fantasist/dreamer and that he has to recognise that he needs to become more realistic in his ambitions. His fantasies are based on the latest scam to involve India’s urban growth – the control of parking franchises in the new tower blocks seemingly rising everywhere in Delhi.
Films like Titli are conventional in the Western sense, i.e. they are recognisable as generic mixes which don’t utilise the specific conventions of the Bollywood (or Tamil/Telugu) masala film. There are no dance routines or ‘item girls’ but otherwise they are associated with the mainstream. I hope that the UK distribution arms of Yash Raj, Studio 18, UTV and Eros can get them into UK cinemas on a more consistent basis.