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I saw three movies over the past week that dealt with, shall we say, guys of the not so good variety as well as those trying to stop them. Two were shown at COL-COA, the French film festival, and the other, from Italy, had a regular run in local theaters.
All came to the same conclusion, though, which is somewhat reassuring. Crime is a very dicey way to live one’s life. Of course, being the good guys doesn’t always run that smoothly either.
The Connection (aka La French), the new based on true events crime thriller from France, would be fun to see on a double feature with American’s own The French Connection since the Gallic film is about the efforts of the Marseilles police to take down the villain played by Fernando Rey in the Gene Hackman film and covers events both before and after Popeye Doyle let that wily, bumbershoot totting criminal mastermind slip through his fingers in New York.
The less said about the totally fictitious The French Connection II, the better.
The Connection stars two of France’s handsomest and most popular leading actors: Jean Dujardin as Pierre Michel, the police magistrate who goes after the drug kingpin, and Gilles Lellouche as Zampa, the title character. In the producer’s defense, not only was this a wise money making decision, in real life these two characters were pretty good looking. In fact, I wouldn’t have blamed Zampa if he got more than a little ticked off at the casting of portly, older Fernando Rey as his fictional counterpart.
The Connection is a very well made film and rarely less than entertaining. It’s written by Audrey Diwan and the director Cédric Jiminez and they do a rather good job of telling a difficult, sprawling story. The movie’s big, well cast, looks great with fine production values and really strives to be more than it is, and even sometimes succeeds.
At the time, though I do recommend it, I’m not convinced that it ultimately rises above the genre.
It begins with Michel, working in vice, being transferred to head a unit to take down Zampa. The two are worthy opponents. Zampa has created an organization whose tentacles reach deeper than Michel could ever have imagined. But Michel is obsessed in reeling in this octopus and will stop at little, including playing fast and loose with the legalities of the situation in order to put Zampa behind bars (his favorite tactic is to ask for warrants to arrest people and when asked for what crime, he says he’ll figure that out afterwards).
And Michel does make damaging inroads into Zampa’s empire. But Zampa is ultimately able to use Michel and his department against themselves as he manipulates the Marseilles police to actually take out all his enemies while not being able to touch Zampa himself (one must certainly take one’s chapeau off to this devil; in many ways, he is quite brilliant).
So Michel loses the battle. As to whether he wins the war, one will have to see the movie to find out.
The Connection has some issues. The longer it goes on, the more familiar the tropes become. This is especially true for Michel as his wife is one of those spouses who doesn’t understand why her husband would rather go out and save the world and take down a vicious murderer rather than have nice, comfy-cozy night at home with her and the kids. At least this time around, Michel gets to say to her face, “You’re selfish” (when he did this, I turned to my friend and said, “Thank you”).
It also has a structure out of movies like Heat and Mary, Queen of Scots in which the two central characters only have one scene together. The problem is that if you are going to do this, then that one scene better be a damn good one. To be kind, the one in The Connection is, shall we say, a bit of a letdown and doesn’t come close to the ones with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro or Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave.
Still, I doubt anyone will be that disappointed.
L’affaire SK1 is also French and also inspired by true events. It revolves around the search for a serial killer that no one knows is a serial killer at first (the title SK1 stands for Serial Killer One, the first such French criminal identified via DNA analysis). The title character, Guy Georges, was called the Beast of Bastille and was apprehended in the 1990’s after raping and killing seven women.
Also like The Connection it starts out well and also has very handsome production values.
The screenplay is by David Oelhoffen and the director Frédéric Tellier and the beginning is rather intriguing: Charlie gets a promotion to a new police unit. As is tradition, he is to go through a number of cold cases with the theory that a fresh eye might see something everyone else overlooked. And he does. He makes a connection between some people in an old murder investigation and the hunt is on again.
But the movie starts losing tension rather quickly as the story bounces back and forth between two time periods, the hunt for Georges and then the efforts of his defense attorneys to get him declared innocent. The investigation is only fitfully interesting and the more it goes on, the more the tropes become overly familiar. And the trial section is hampered by a character who really isn’t all that interesting.
In the end, this jumping back and forth doesn’t really add any insight to the story and only bogs things down. It’s also rather underused. The one area of the plot that is not as well done as it may need to be is how all the evidence gathered by the police, which seemed quite exculpatory the way the story is written, suddenly becomes very culpatory.
It does show some peculiarities of the French justice system as the defense attorney does something in the end that I don’t think would be allowed in the U.S.
But in the end, the movie never becomes that satisfying.
The police officer who becomes so obsessed in finding the killer that he does things like throw temper tantrums as well as objects around the squad room is played by Raphaȅl Personnaz, a young actor who has been making a name for himself in such roles as Marius in the films Fanny and Marius, as well as Count Vronsky in Kiera Knightley’s Anna Karenina. He’s handsome, but he’s also just a tad bland.
The defense attorney is played by the great Nathalie Baye, but here she has little to really work with.
Like The Connection and other movies, the two characters meet only once. It’s a clunky scene that is a bit too on the nose (we may be opponents, but we’re in connecting buildings and we are both necessary to society, that sort of thing).
However, keep a look out for Olivier Gourmet as Bougon. He has starred in many of the Dardenne Brothers films, including the lead in what may be their greatest, The Son.
Again, not to repeat myself, the movie starts out very well and is even more handsome a production than the other two films combined. It comes equipped with gorgeous cinematography, stronger acting and more interesting characters.
But like SK1, it never quite comes together as I wished it would.
It opens with Luigi, one of three brothers, negotiating with some members of a Spanish mob for the importation of drugs that they can sell in Milan where he lives with his brother Rocco. In Milan they are big fishes in a big pond. But in their less impressive village of origin where their estranged brother Luciano farms and herds sheep (he wants nothing to do with them), they are small fish in a small pond and have to answer to the local don.
Things start going awry when Luciano’s son Leo shoots up a local bar in fit of pique when the owner insults his family. Since the bar owner is friends with the Don, Leo flees to Milan where he asks his brothers to take him into the business. The two brothers then decide that now is as good a time as any to return home and take over their village.
It’s around here that the plot starts to wobble. Since none of the criminals are sympathetic in any way (on both sides), it’s basically a dog eat dog story in which you not only don’t care which dog wins, you sort of hope they both eat each other. So I had no real emotional investment in the outcome of the story.
It also probably doesn’t help that Giuseppe Fumo, who plays Leo, is not the most exciting of screen performers. He does have an interesting look, but to be honest, he’s not the most exciting of screen presences.
In addition, the family is so bad at making war, there’s no real strong or tense conflict.
So the plot in many ways limps along until it has one hell of an ending, so hell of an ending that it almost makes the movie worth the price of admission alone.
But the ending also reveals why the story isn’t really working. It didn’t have the right central character. It should have focused on Luciano, even beginning the story with him in the small village, rather than split the story among so many people. Luciano is the closest the movie has to a Michael Corleone, someone for us to be invested in.
Instead it feels as if the movie starts late, in the middle of act one, and doesn’t have a strong enough focus.
The three brothers are played by Marco Leonardi (Luigi), Peppino Mazzotta (Rocco) and Fabrizio Ferracane (Luciano) and all give very strong performances. The screenplay is by the director Francesco Munzi, Fabrizio Ruggirello and Maurizio Braucci from a book by Gioacchino Criaco. Braucci has worked on two of the finest films from Italy lately: Gomorrah and Reality.