The first R-rated movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture, William Friedkin's 1971 crime thriller The French Connection, remains a milestone in movie history. It paved the way for a new era of gritty realism in American film — a banner that soon would be carried by filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet. Forty-four years later, the French have arrived to take back Friedkin's based-on-true-events tale of a crime syndicate in Marseille, France that became New York City's biggest heroin supplier throughout the 1970s.
French director and Marseille native Cedric Jimenez's The Connection mines the same basic source material as The French Connection with very different results. Set several years later, from 1975 through the early 1980s, it tells the story of real-life magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin, Oscar-winning star of The Artist) and his cat-and-mouse pursuit of Gaetan "Tany" Zampa (Gilles Lellouche), the godfather of Marseille and the main source of that extremely pure heroin. The Connection has its share of violent street crime, but this well-crafted film relies more on character and story than The French Connection's high-speed action. The Connection doesn't break any new ground, but it manages to turn familiarity into a primary asset.
The story begins just as Michel is promoted from working juvenile cases to organized crime (in the French system of justice, investigating magistrates gather evidence and work with police). Having seen firsthand how heroin ravages French youth, Michel grounds his crusade against drug trafficking in something akin to social justice. U.S. President Richard M. Nixon had just begun his highly politicized "war on drugs" (as shown in the film's opening sequence), but Michel's efforts to snag the infamous Zampa made Michel a folk hero, a real-life characterization that has lasted to the present day. An American DEA agent sent to work with Michel in Marseille is introduced early in the film but quickly forgotten. The Connection is purely a product of France, like Joan of Arc or Champagne.
The film also belongs to Zampa. A devoted family man who's similarly accomplished in his chosen field, the crime boss almost seems like Michel's evil twin (their resemblance, in real life and in the film, is hard to miss). Along with just about every actor in parts large and small in The Connection, both Dujardin and Lellouche manage subtle and multifaceted performances and bring their true-life characters into sharp focus.
Shot on 35 millimeterfilm using mostly shoulder-mounted cameras, natural lighting and 360-degree sets, The Connection has a lived-in quality that suits its low-key, period-piece aesthetic. Jimenez, whose father actually owned a restaurant next to a bar owned by Zampa's brother, devotes himself to capturing the beautiful yet hardscrabble port city of his youth. His film seems shorter than its 140-minute running time because it never stops moving briskly toward its inevitably tragic denouement.
That propulsive quality occasionally recalls Goodfellas-era Scorsese, especially in combination with The Connection's spirited period soundtrack, which ranges from Blondie to Townes Van Zandt. There may be nothing new under the sun but sometimes that's just as it should be.