Back in the 1930s, the busy French port of Marseilles was home to a small drug-trafficking ring operated by a Corsican gang. The gang would buy surplus opium poppies from licensed farmers and export the product to America in the form of heroin. Present in the port of Marseilles throughout the Second World War, the gang were approached by French and American intelligence agencies who agreed to provide them with protection in return for keeping the port of Marseilles free from communists. With local authorities corrupted, infiltrated, or ordered to look the other way, the Corsican gang were free to expand their smuggling operations and invest the money in local businesses. By the late 1960s, this small gang had become the primary source of heroin for the American drugs trade. The story of how this criminal conspiracy was uncovered and how the American side of the business was shut down was first written about in a work of non-fiction by Robin Moore, a book that would later inspire William Friedkin’s classic crime thriller The French Connection. Cedric Jimenez’s The Connection (also known as La French) explores the French side of the conspiracy and asks what kind of madman would risk his life trying to clean up one of the most corrupt cities in Western Europe?
The film opens with investigating magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) applying pressure to a teenaged junkie in the hope that with-holding drugs will force her to crack and give up the name of her supplier. The junkie is terribly young and terribly upset but the camera seems more interested in Michel’s facial expressions; is he bluffing? Will he really let a teenaged girl go through the hell of withdrawal if she refuses to give him a name? Michel eventually cracks but the scene establishes him as a man who is not afraid to take risks and ride his luck. In fact, Michel explains that he used to be addicted to gambling.
Impressed by his tenacity and ability to get his life back on track, Michel’s superiors promote him and send him to Marseilles with a mission to bring down the Corsican gang that runs the city. Initially, the team make slow progress as teetotal kingpin Tany Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) seems to be permanently one step ahead of the police. Despite having nothing to show for his efforts, Michel receives favourable coverage in the local papers and so begins a head-line grabbing campaign of locking up every street-level scumbag in the hope of somehow slowing down the local drugs trade. Zampa is singularly unimpressed but the closest he gets to feeling the pressure is when one of his men comes in and complains about how Michel locking up his wife has forced him to go shopping and look after his own kids.
As anyone who has watched David Simon’s TV series The Wire will tell you, these types of low-level arrests play very well in the media but they do absolutely nothing to impact the drugs trade. However, while the heroin continues to flow, Jimenez shoots Michel’s ineffectual muscle-flexing as though it were a fantastic night out: Lots of people toasting each other with champagne, lots of manly cops having sex with admiring wives, and lots of Jean Dujardin flashing a toothy grin opposite celebratory headlines. Given that a) Michel’s actions have minimal impact on the drugs trade and b) Michel manifestly has little interest in the people struggling with drug addiction, it would seem strange for Michel to be so obsessed with his work. The film suggests that Michel’s pursuit of Zampa and the insane risks he takes as part of that pursuit are just an expression of his addictive personality: Where once Michel risked everything on a turn of the card, now he risks everything by playing hunches and violating civil rights. What is the War on Drugs if not an institutionalised addiction to headlines and excitement? Maybe the reason we continue to treat addicts like criminals is that you don’t build careers in law enforcement and politics by tending to the sick.
About halfway through the film, Michel hits rock bottom when his wife leaves him and his attempt to strong-arm the local mayor results in his being removed from the case. At this point, the film shifts its stance and begins to explore the Zampa character. Just as Michel is a man forced into a particular role by addiction, Zampa is portrayed as a man who cannot step down or give-up because his enterprise pays a lot of people’s wages. The film makes Zampa’s many obligations manifest in the form of a vast nightclub that costs Zampa a fortune to run but keeps his girlfriend happy and his friends in cool places to hang out. Zampa cannot quit any more than Michel can… both men are completely stuck.
Having let all of the air out of the macho posturing that dominates the film’s opening act, Jimenez moves the film from right-wing cops and robbers fantasy to left-wing critique by exploring how a bunch of Corsicans came to take over the town of Marseilles in the first place.
In order to appreciate the film’s final act it is first necessary to understand that French cinema has always been willing to confront historical narratives and name names in the process. For example, after the Second World War, French cultural elites took it upon themselves to downplay the extent of French institutional collaboration with the Nazis. One part of this myth was the idea that France had spent the Second World War under constant German occupation and the second part of the myth is that of the citizen resistance fighter and the idea that every Frenchman had spent the war secretly fighting the Nazis. This myth came under sustained attack throughout the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s as the French film industry began producing films like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, Joseph Losey’s Monsieur Klein, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity and Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog. All of these films pointed not only to French people helping the Nazis to ship Jews off to concentration camps but also to a culture of secrecy that had allowed Nazi collaborators to remain part of the French establishment until well into the 1970s.
Undeniably part of this great cinematic tradition, Cedric Jimenez’s The Connection argues that many of the people operating the French Connection were either part of the local police force or senior figures in French politics. When Michel is first removed from the case, it is at the behest of Marseille’s long-serving mayor and he only returns to the case when he realises the mayor’s connections to the incoming Mitterand government and so offers his services to a senior minister as someone who can help to conceal incriminating political connections by either arresting or murdering people who might prove embarrassing to the new political elite. Jimenez’s desire to confront France’s recent political past is reminiscent of Matthieu Kassovitz’s thoroughly excellent Rebellion, a film about how Jacques Chirac allowed police to massacre protesters in an effort to win over hard-right voters in a tightly-run election. Both films are powerful, necessary and a reminder that no comparable tradition exists in British film.