Welcome to Marseilles, France. It’s sometime in the 1970s and the drug problem is at its peak. Business is booming for the drug lords and international cartels; corruption is deeply entrenched in politics and the law;moneytalks, feeds the habit, fuels the dirty business and influences the weak-willed. It was a time of intimidation and desperation, of vice and violence.
But such times of despair—as history has taught us—are also the most opportune for a hero to rise above and take his or her place, as martyrs who suffer tragic fates, or leaders persecuted to their deaths.
The Connection(2014) takes this narrative of hero versus villain but adds layers about justice, control, violence and obsession, giving it depth that goes beyond its uncomplicated story-line. Directed by Cédric Jimenez, the film is inspired by the French Connection, an actual drug smuggling scheme that peaked in the late 1960 to early 1970s, in which heroin was smuggled from Turkey to France then Canada and finally the United States. The Connection portrays its themes to great effect with beautiful cinematography and sharp screenplay. Playing up to the stereotype that the French are fashionable, the film featured a smashing ‘70s wardrobe—subtle and classy—that would please the most dapper of today’s hipsters.
Protagonist Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin)—you’ll remember him from The Artist (2012)—is a magistrate (judge) promoted from counselling troubled and addicted teenagers in the youth unit to the department that tackled organised crime. His first mammoth task is to take down the drug syndication that stretched from Marseilles to New York – the infamous La French, which translates to The Connection in English, an apt title to this film. The problem for Marseilles was that everyone knew the man behind this beautifully organised chaos. But he remained clean as a whistle; no one could pin Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) for any dirty business.
The plot thickens at a comfortable pace, climaxing at the point when both sides realise they have much to lose. For Michel, losing this drug war would have meant that his obsession with fighting the good fight was even more of a sorry excuse for the absent father and unloving husband he had become. For Zampa or Tany (the nickname he went by among friends), it was straightforward; his money defined him, losing his fortune meant losing everything, including his materialistic wife. It ends tragically for both men, while the ringleaders holding key posts in the civil and government service remain unscathed, livelihood and reputations intact.
The two leading characters epitomise contemporary polarities found in society—good and bad, dirty politics or clean governance, money over ethics. Which side we fall to depends entirely on the choices we make. The good judge chose long hours, earning an average keep for a social cause and moral higher calling. On the other hand, the businessman went for a life of decadence, luxury and lavish parties, maintained by a vast network of lackeys who kept the drugs moving.
They were both idealists, whose opposing worlds and values couldn’t coexist in one society. But apart from family as sacrosanct, there were other similarities – a hunger for control (albeit in different ways and for different purposes) and the way each got things done. Michel, like Zampa, broke the law and bent the rules; they lied, issued threats and intimidated the weak. Both used underhanded means because they had the power to do so, yet we forgive Michel and persecute Zampa.
As much as The Connection reveals the toxic underbelly of a flawed law enforcement and judicial system complicated by drugs, mobs and violence, it also toys with the fact that nothing is clearly black or white, that most of us are surprisingly comfortable with loose moral codes, loopholes and grey areas, as long as they get us what we want or need; as long as they are means to an end that is (as we all hope to believe) for the greater good.
So whether you’re an addict shooting up with heroin behind closed doors or a mobster on a manhunt that ends in a massive bullet exchange or a regular cop ordered to eavesdrop on only the most wanted man in France, it doesn’t matter. Because we’ll eventually find ways to do what we need to do, depending on how much you want it and at what cost.
Watch the trailer:
The Connection was the opening film for the 25th European Union Film Festival (EUFF) that took place from 13 to 24 May 2015 at Golden Village.
The festival celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and is Singapore’s oldest foreign film festival. Over the years, the EUFF has exposed film-goers to the people, landscapes and traditions of Europe through the art of cinema. This year’s lineup features Oscar nominee Mandariinid (Estonia) and Oscar winning Ida (Poland) as well as sports-themed feature films from newcomers to EUFF Latvia and Serbia. This year’s EUFF also sees a collaboration with LASALLE’s Puttnam School of Film to showcase students’ filmmaking talents. Their short films will be screened before the European feature films. Cain, a 5-minute short premieres on the opening night alongside The Connection.
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