Film review: Selections from the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2015 from Built For Speed

The Connection

Set in mostly in Marseilles from the early 1970’s to the 1980’s the tense and exciting true-crime drama The Connection describes, from a French, as opposed to an American perspective, the story behind the infamous French Connection drug syndicate.  

Jean Dujardin plays uncompromising police magistrate Pierre Michel who transfers from juvenile crime – where he has witnessed the devastating effects of heroin on French youth – to organised crime where he thinks he can attack the heroin trade at its source.  The so-called French Connection had flooded the streets with heroin leading to an epidemic of overdoses and gangland killings.  With a pitbull-like tenacity Michel pursues the Connection and its leader Gaeten Zampa (Gilles Lelouche), often employing investigative and arrest methods that aren’t exactly in the manual. Taking on a deadly adversary like Zampa, however, has its consequences. 

With its 70’s milieu, long tracking shots, montages depicting the mechanics of the drug trade and its pounding rock soundtrack, this film immediately recalls the work of the master of organised crime cinema, Martin Scorsese.  Still, director Cedric Jimenez manages to avoid being too derivative as he infuses this film with a uniquely European flavour and an introspective quality generally not seen in Scorsese’s films.  The Connection is a superbly judged mix of personal drama and crime epic as it delves into Michel and Zampa’s lives while conveying the scope of the Marseille drug trade.

While never glorifying violence Jiminez creates pulse-pounding action sequences as the police tear through the Marseille streets in pursuit of Zampa’s gang or inch their way along the dark corridors of Zampa’s secret drug labs.

Jean DuJardin is remarkably convincing as the tough but refined Michel thorougly inhabiting the character and never lapsing into histrionics or cop clichés.  Lelloiuche is riveting as Zampa giving him an unnerving and menacing quality as well as a trobled human side.

The Connection is a must see for crime thriller aficionados.

Nick’s rating: ****.

Genre: Crime/ drama.

Classification: MA 15+.

Director(s): Cédric Jimenez.

Running time: 135 mins.


The Last Diamond

The Last Diamond is an engrossing crime caper film with a touch of romantic drama.

Yvan Attal plays Simon Carrera a master jewel thief just out of prison.  He hopes to go straight but he immediately finds himself recruited into a diamond heist by his ageing accomplice Albert (Jean-François Stévenin).  They plan to steal the $55 million Florentine diamond as it’s auctioned in Paris.  It should be noted that the real Florentine diamond apparently went missing without a trace in the First World War.  With the diamond enveloped in the tightest of security systems, Simon’s only chance to swipe the stone is to inveigle himself into the life of the young attractive museum curator Julia (Bérénice Bejo) who is overseeing the auction.  Not surprisingly romantic entanglements ensue which complicate the caper and produce friction between Simon and his fellow criminals.

The film has a polished (pardon the pun) and sophisticated look and cleverly mixes a heist story (that owes a tip of the hat to the Robert Redford film The Hot Rock among others) with a dash of quirky comedy, romance and some reasonably convincing action scenes.

It’s a film of surfaces though, and while Attal and Bejo are charming leads the film never delves deeply enough into Simon or Julia’s character to connect us to them emotionally.

As an attractive at times exciting and clever caper film it’s as pleasing as anything out of Hollywood recently and much less convoluted and smug than the Oceans 11 films but it’s hardly a revelation.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Crime/ drama.

Classification: MA 15+.

Director(s): Eric Barbier.

Running time: 109 mins.



Samba is not about the seductive Brazilian dance (although that does briefly appear in this film) but the plight of immigrants in Paris.

Samba (Omar Sy) is a young Senegalese man living in Paris without the required residency papers.   He spends his time desperately trying to scrape together any work he can find while staying stay one step ahead of the immigration authorities. His life takes a dramatic turn when he encounters Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) a corporate high flyer who, after a boardroom melt down, is doing volunteer work at an immigrant legal aid centre.

This film is an odd mix of sobering drama and quirky romantic comedy.  For the most part it explores the harsh reality of immigrant life in France – particularly the desperate scramble for employment – in a realistic and credible manner.  Occasionally, though, it descends into overly cute comic vignettes that undermine the film’s credibility. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the unrealistic fantasy of life in the west but some of the more comical scenes – such as Samba’s friend Wilson doing a strip tease routine in front of female office workers – jar with the more serious scenes.

Omar Sy, who earned high praise for his performance in 2011’s The Intouchables, is terrific as he makes the imposingly large Samba a complex, sympathetic but not angelic character.  The ubiquitous Gainsbourg who is almost always excellent is, however, something of a brittle neurotic female cliché here.

Samba is an inconsistent but informative and often confronting film about people on the fringes of wealthy western society.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Drama/ romance.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano.

Running time: 118 mins.



Diplomacy, directed by the legendary Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) from Cyril Gely’s stage play dramatizes the last minute scramble to stop the Nazi’s dynamiting Paris on Hitler’s specific orders as the Allies close in at the end of the Second World War.

Niels Arestrup plays German Governor General Choltitz, the man in charge of orchestrating Paris’ destruction.  He seems unrepentant about the cultural crime and mass murder he is about to commit, it appears that, to him this is a matter of following orders and even justifiable retaliation for resistance attacks although the film also suggests  that there may have been other reasons forcing his hand.  Desperately trying to convince him to reconsider the planned destruction is Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier).  The two feverishly debate the merits of Paris, French culture and society, the state of the Nazi regime, the absurdity of war and personal stresses affecting their decisions.

The film’s theatrical origins are obvious as much of the film is composed of long stretches of dialogue between the Choltitz and Nordling.  The limitations of this format are noticeable and restrictive but the insightful dialogue compensates.

Arestrup portrays Choltitz with a convincing arrogance, self-righteousness and vindictiveness but also with occasional flickers of humanity.  Dussollier compellingly depicts Nordling as a mix of desperation and necessary diplomatic caution.

A very talky film and a speculative one as we don’t know exactly what happened at this time but a film that engrossingly explores a pivotal moment in 20th century history.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: War/ drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Volker Schlondorff.

Running time: 84 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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