The French Connection

French ConnectionIf you are looking for the meaning of life, this movie is not for you. Indeed, if you are looking for any meaning at all, this is not your movie.  Rather, it is a completely kinetic film.  Directed by William Friedkin, it echoes the French cinema of the 1950’s, which itself echoes the American gangster films of the 1930’s.  It is all movement and action, with practically no dialogue, moving in a steady arc of energy toward a violent ending.

In Marseille, a powerful French drug dealer, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) sets up a major deal in the United States by bringing in a famous French television star, Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), to be the front. An undercover policeman following him is assassinated by his heavy, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi).  Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, two narcotics policemen, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) are sick of all their small busts and are looking for a big score.  Noticing that a local small-time hood, Salvatore “Sal” Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his young wife Angie (Arlene Farber) are courting the mafia, they begin to tail the couple and find that they are leading a double life, running a small neighborhood deli by day and carousing at night.  As they follow the Bocas around, they see Sal make a connection with Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary), a suspected big-time drug trafficker.  From their sources on the street, they find out that the city has been pretty dry, but a big connection is supposed to be arriving soon.  With this information, they convince their boss to wiretap the Bocas and find themselves saddled with Federal involvement, in the form of a man named Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who blames Popeye for the loss of a policeman on a different bust.

When the French arrive, they beef up their operation, putting permanent tails on both the Bocas and the French, but Charnier loses Doyle in the subway and flies to Washington to meet with Boca, who tries to stall him because Joel Weinstock is worried about the police. Charnier is determined that the deal will go through on his timetable.  Back in Brooklyn, Nicoli attempts to assassinate Doyle, but misses.  As he roars off on an El, Popeye follows him on the street using an appropriated automobile in a chase that comes off as one of the best ever done in film.  Nicoli loses control of the situation and shoots several operators on the train, then escapes when the train collides with the one in front of it, but Doyle is waiting below.  When Nicoli attempts to flee, Doyle shoots him in the back.

Henri Devereaux has brought his car, a Lincoln, to New York, so Doyle impounds it and they tear it apart looking for the junk, finally finding it in the rocker panels. Replacing it, they put the car back to together and return it to Devereaux, who loans it o Charnier as a part of their deal.  Charnier drives the car to Wards Island where the dope–several hundred pounds of world class heroin–is extracted from the rocker panels and replaced with the cash that Weinstock pays for it.  The dope is hidden in the old factory, but when Charnier attempts to drive back to New York, the bridge has been blocked off by Popeye, Cloudy, and the police.  Charnier returns to the Island, but a shootout follows in which Doyle follows him into an abandoned building and accidentally shoots the Federal agent.  Charnier escapes and most of the hoods get off, but the one innocent man, Devereaux, gets prison time.  Doyle and Russo get reassigned off of the narco squad.  As the French might say, “this is life.”

Any student of chase scenes or the building of tension in a movie can look to The French Connection almost as a textbook because it is done brilliantly.  The kinetic nature of the film won it a handful of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hackman), Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman).  It was nominated, but did not win, other awards, but neglected was the great score by Don Ellis.

For me, though, it just didn’t add up to anything. No real theme is explored, no light is shed on the dreary, meaningless lives of the cops or the dealers.  Hitchcock would have admired the extreme lack of dialogue and the way the tension built, but there is nothing to carry away with you except that life sucks.  I can recommend this movie to film students and to those whose only value in cinema is kinetic energy, but there is no depth.  It is a one hour and forty minute thrill ride, full of action, but with no meaning or real entertainment value whatsoever.

Chocolat

Chocolat VienneMost things that give enjoyment are not bad. In fact, most things in life that we enjoy are entirely without sin, even if they do induce sensual pleasure, such as, let us say, chocolate, that most wonderful of confections.

My review contains information about the story, so if you haven’t seen the movie, beware. Reading this review may spoil the ending for you!

It is 1959, in a French village surrounded by a wall and a river, barricaded from the world as if it hadn’t changed since the Renaissance. On a Sunday morning when everyone is at church, a woman, Vianne (Juliette Binoche), and her young daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), trudge through the wind and snow to open a chocolaterie. Vianne is destined to wander from town to town, as her mother did, dispensing the joy of chocolate.  She carries her mother’s ashes with her and she knows that Anouk will also be destined for the same fate.

 The mayor, Comte Paul de Reynaud (Alfred Molina) finds it sinful to open such a business during Lent and he encourages the villagers to boycott it and their young priest, Pere Henri (Hugh O’Conor) to preach sermons against it.  When he discovers that Anouk is an illegitimate child and that Vianne will not attend mass, he becomes even more consumed with driving her out of business.  He has his own problems: his wife has gone to Italy and it looks like she isn’t coming back and he is also struggling with his own desires for food as he starves himself in his sorrow.

chocolat anoukIn order to coax the villagers to buy her chocolate, Vianne gives away free samples, winning over Guillaume Blerot (John Wood), an older man whose little dog Charlie likes the treats. Blerot pines after a WWI widow, Madame Audel (Leslie Caron) and he wins her over with little chocolate treats.  Vianne’s first real friend comes in the form of her landlady, Armande (Judi Dench), who also doesn’t go to church.  She is estranged from her daughter, Caroline (Carrie-Anne Moss), who works for the Comte and keeps her son, Luc (Aurélien Parent-Koenig), away from his grandmother. Vianne arranged for Luc to spend some time with Armande at the chocolaterie under the pretense of his drawing a portrait of her.  Vianne wins another friend when the owner of the café, Serge (Peter Stormare) beats his wife Josephine (Lena Olin) who runs to the chocolaterie for sanctuary.  She stays and becomes Vianne’s assistant.  The Comte attempts to force Serge to get himself together, making him abstain from alchohol, teaching him manners, sending him to catechism classes.

The town is thrown into chaos when a band of gypsies arrives by boat, docking along the river front. Led by a charismatic young man, Roux (Johnny Depp), the gypsies want nothing more than to trade, but the Comte forbids it and mounts a campaign to have the villagers boycott the gypsies.  Of course, Vianne is intrigued and makes friends with Roux.  When Serge assaults the chocolaterie in a drunken rage, breaking open the door, the women fight him off and Josephine knocks him out with a skillet. Roux volunteers to repair Vianne’s door and she agrees to hire him, thus breaking the boycott.  The Comte takes his fight with her to a new level as he tells all of the villagers that to consort with her is to consort with the devil and he makes Pere Henri do the same thing from the pulpit.

Vianne feels that the whole world is against her and considers leaving, but Armande requests that she throw her a party for her 70th birthday.  Vianne also has planned a Festival for Easter Sunday. Most of Vianne’s friends attend, including Luc and Roux, but dessert is to be served on Roux’s boat and they all retire there to dance and enjoy the evening.  Caroline comes in search of Luc, but when she sees him dancing with his grandmother, she doesn’t interfere.  However, Serge brings the Comte to see the party and the mayor tells him, “Something must be done.”  When the party winds down, a fire erupts on the boats.  Seeing the damage, Vianne decides that it is time to leave, so she packs, over Josephine’s pleas that she stay, and forces to Anouk to join her, but they fight and her mother’s ashes are spilled.  There is laughter and she looks into her kitchen to find Josephine leading the villagers in the preparation for the Easter Festival.  She abandons her plans to leave.

On the night before Easter, Serge confesses to the Comte that he started the boat fire because the Comte had told him that “something must be done.” In a fit of rage, the Comte banishes Serge from the village, then goes to pray, confessing that he is so starved and so weak of spirit that he must do something.  Taking up a knife, he breaks into the chocolaterie to destroy the confections in the window display, but a bit of chocolate splashes onto his lip and he licks it up. In one moment, he loses his composure and begins to eat every bit of chocolate he can get his hands on.  The next morning, Pere Henri sees the mayor passed out in the window display, covered in chocolate.

It’s hard to imagine anyone crusty enough not to love Chocolat.  It is a wonderful movie, beautifully and movingly directed by Lasse Hallström, the Swedish director who also gave us The Cider House Rules (and, by the way, Lena Olin’s husband).  The music by Rachel Portman, part gypsy, part Hispanic, part French, is absolutely perfect for every scene in the film.  Adapted by screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs from the novel by Joanne Harris, the story is strong and true, moving, funny, and uplifting.

All of the actors are wonderful and it would be hard to single out one performance that stands out above the other, but I must mention that Judi Dench is amazing as Armande and that Johnny Depp’s guitar adds a great deal to the fun. Binoche is lovely as Vianne and it is good to see her teamed with Lena Olin, the first time the two women have worked together since The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

This is an incandescent story of freedom. No matter how firm oppression may seem, if you are good and true and give love back to the world, the world will eventually come to you.