Director: Cédric Jimenez
Writer: Cédric Jimenez and Audrey Diwan
Stars: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette
Fast paced and professional, but unfortunately this is all-too familiar territory.
If La French succeeds at anything it is in helping prove the fact that it doesn’t matter where a film is shot or in which language it is spoken, nothing can pull the emotional impact out of a story like over-familiarity. And this isn’t in due in any significant part to the drug kingpin take-down story which audiences already know from William Friedkin’s 1971 masterpiece The French Connection, but rather from the same well-trodden plot points and characters we’ve seen countless times before.
Cédric Jimenez’s film certainly has all checkpoints covered on a surface level – the retro 1970s and 80s setting gives the feel that something important must be going on, as does the bloated 135 minutes run time (compared to Freidkin’s film which clocked in at a perfect 104 minutes and gave us one of the most memorable chases in film history) – but this is only enough to buy our curiosity, but rarely enough to earn out attention. Thankfully what I feared would happen never did, namely a faux 70s experience like the recent Blood Ties or Life Of Crime; and whilst Jimenez doesn’t attempt to directly copy from the 70s in his camerawork and cinematography, his film feels deeply rooted as an pale companion piece to far greater studies in criminality like Goodfellas, Casino, Donnie Brasco, American Gangster, and any Michael Mann film which has pretty much done it as well as it can ever wished to be done. In one scene our hero and villain meet face to face and briefly exchange dialogue overloaded with thematic undertones and you can’t help but think this is getting far too familiar; Heat it is not, and should never even try to be.
The movie needed so much to stop trying to be ‘big’ and ‘grand’ and focus on being its own story, with only the characters and stories which matter taking up the screen time. This is made worse because the extraneous parts take away moments from two lead characters who could have been interesting; Pierre Michel (The Artist Oscar winner Jean Dujardin) is a newly appointed judge, tasked to bring down the drug syndicate spearheaded by Gaëtan ‘Tany’ Zampa (Gilles Lellouche who has been in several great French films in recent years – Point Blank, Mesrie, Tell No One). The film gives both men an equal share of time on screen but sadly Zampa’s character never goes far beyond ‘slick but ruthless’ and Michel is forced to go through the motions of losing his wife and kids because the damn job is just too damn stressful…. until he can conveniently quit. This plot beat is so predictable and boring, and even if it does give Dujardin some moments to cry and shout, the fact that we barely know or care about his family is never addressed.
Watching the film for long enough you soon become aware that you know what’s going to happen and when, it’s just a matter of time. This can be said of most true crime stories but the great ones captivate you with how they are told and with whom they are telling it; La French shows its hand by the hour mark and, despite a twist which I didn’t see coming, this is one which’ll please only those who haven’t seen enough movies.
Yet in spite of the criticisms I cannot hide, I liked it. Despite the failings to add any new spin on the genre, La French is nevertheless a fast paced film with all the best intentions of being something grand. Always well directed and acted, and engrossing as far as its own limitations will allow, the film is at the very least one of the more notable ‘based on a true story’ crime stories since 2009’s Public Enemies.