It is always a delight to see Isabelle Huppert on screen. In Mama Weed (Original title: La Darrone), based on the novel by Hannelore Cayre, the legendary French actress plays Patience Portefeux, a French-Arabic translator working for the anti-narcotics unit of the Paris police. Headed by Phillipe (Hippolyte Girardot), with whom Patience has a singular love affair, this unit aims to catch the city’s big drug dealers who turn out to be Moroccans whose daily calls the protagonist must interpret.
But Patience’s loyalties change dramatically when she overhears the son of one of her mother’s nurses on the wiretap at work. Patience is moved to protect the son of Kadidja (Farida Ouchani), her elderly mother’s dedicated nurse, but not only for gratitude. We soon discovered that Patience has always been surrounded by suspiciously illegal behavior. Her deceased husband was, according to one of her daughters, a “crook” who left her with 20 years of debt. In a conversation with Phillipe about the way her husband made a living, she comments “Not the sort of business you’d have approved.” She says something similar about her father, who came to France from Algeria in ’62. “I just like it when life finds a path,” she says. And certainly, Patience’s life finds a path.
With a huge store of hash in her possession, Patience, now under the identity of Mama Weed, moves purposefully through the city selling the merchandise and dealing with Arab buyers who, let us say, are probably not the type of buyers she would find in real life. Mama Weed requires that at times we suspend our beliefs about what might or might not happen in real life. After all, it is a comedy crime thriller.
All this happens while Patience misleads the police with false translations of the conversations. The big question that hangs over the audience throughout the entire film is “why does she do it?” Of course, she wants the money. Not only she wants it but needs it too. We know that, for example, she is behind in payments to the long-term care facility where her mother stays. But there is also some rejection of institutional ways of life. When asked by her daughters why she does not take her relationship with Phillippe seriously, she says “He can be nice, but he is a real cop too.” Or maybe she does it out of loyalty to his Arab roots.
Director Jean-Paul Salomé seems determined to keep his protagonist’s motivations a mystery. He does not seek to justify her actions, presenting her as a kind of mythical hero. However, he tries unsuccessfully to find her human side. He seems to be seeking the audience to connect with Patience’s personal and family history, especially her relationship with her father. The problem is that there is no solid character development to transcend the simple portrait of a corrupt woman.
Fortunately, Huppert’s performance is strong enough to keep the ship afloat. The veteran actress effortlessly manages to capture the mystery of her character. Like a fish in water, she handles both comic and dramatic instances. In fact, Salomé relies so much on Huppert’s talent. That is why the film does not work as a whole. There is not much to highlight beyond her performance.
On the other hand, the portrait of ethnic minorities in the film is interesting. Both Moroccans and Chinese seem to represent that subculture of the street that manages to move large amounts of money of dubious origin. The conflict is probably much more serious in real life. Salomé’s film does not have a critical humor to provoke a reflection on the subject, but rather turns out to be something banal.
Mama Weed opens in select theaters July 16
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