'The Connection' Makes Familiar Paths Exciting Again

Although there's not much new in its' story, the way that director Cédric Jimenez balances formal style and emotional substance makes The Connection a worthwhile watch.

The Connection

Director: Cédric Jimenez
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lellouche, Céline Sallette
Distributor: Drafthouse Films
Studio: Gaumont, Légende Films
UK Release Date: 2015-10-19
US Release Date: 2015-09-29

The line of stylish crime thrillers is long and filled with as many winners as there are duds. Thankfully, director Cédric Jimenez has a real winner on his hands.

With the Scorsesean formula -- bombastic and stylish set-pieces, musical moments, clever camerawork -- there's a lot of room to fail, if only in the sense that failure is the age old triumph of style over substance, the understanding of a film being solely relegated to the understanding of its surface elements. To craft a good crime thriller of this genre necessitates a deft hand, balancing the stylish elements with a human connection.

It’s reassuring, then, that The Connection is able to strike a good balance between its gorgeous but subtle '70s-inspired crime moments and the relationships underneath them. Taking cues from the aforementioned Scorsese (but then again, what modern crime thriller doesn’t owe Scorsese?) as well as the obvious companion, William Friedkin’s The French Connection, The Connection’s cardinal sin seems to be the fact that it doesn’t really invigorate the formula. Granted, it does what it does extremely well, and that’s enough, but had the story felt fresher it would have been truly substantial.

Like The French Connection, The Connection is the story of a not-quite-by-the-book government worker trying to bust the big boss responsible for the area’s recent heroin epidemic. Substitute gritty '70s New York City for a sun-soaked '70s Marseille, and Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle for Jean Dujardin’s Pierre Michel, and you’ve got the basic trajectory intact.

And yet, the film still manages to feel fresh. The leads, Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) and Gaètan ‘Tany’ Zampa (Giles Lellouche) are absolutely captivating. On the “Making Of” bonus feature, commentary regarding Dujardin’s acting is usually directed towards his physicality. After all, Dujardin did win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 2011 for the silent comedy The Artist. To see him in The Connection, one begins to notice the way he makes use of physical space in scenes. The audience understand’s more of Pierre’s approach to life from the way he acts in scenes, not just from what he says. Add to that the irreverent air of his character, no doubt partly influenced by his comedic background, and he provides an engaging hero and excellent foil for Tany. Where Pierre is jokey and carefree, Gaètan lives in a world of perpetual anxiety.

This basic dynamic is ready to be exploited for those moments of conflict when all bets are off. A particular scene on a hillside road bursts with tension, undercut by the gorgeous visuals behind the two leads. The most basic clash of philosophy at The Connection’s heart drives a number of the film’s most interesting scenes and makes the smallest acts of aggression seem like a full scale war. Give the two characters equal cunning and resources, and the resulting ideological war becomes gripping and unpredictable.

This clash is extrapolated outwards and becomes the basis of the film, the endless tale of the war between justice and crime. It's the tale of the capitalist epoch, an unanswered question of where the lines are to be drawn in the pursuit of capital, and whether or not righting wrongs implies a necessity of working outside the scope of the law. The Connection has all the prerequisites for this story: government corruption, large scale production, and the idealist at the center of it all.

With this template already prepared, what is left for Cédric is to make the familiar compelling once again. To this end, Cédric makes sure to delve deeper into the psychology of the characters, giving our villains as much humanity as our heroes. The ultimate struggle of the characters seems to be that they are all trying to survive in systems that restrict them. The moments when the formal style really shines through -- motorcycle chases, drug raids, nightclub scenes -- don’t detract from those moments when the characters take on added depths. The world of the film is cynical, almost asserting that there is no good and bad, just people with families of which some survive through less than reputable means.

The Connection is a good film. One could say that it succeeds in spite of its main fault, but the opposite seems to be true. Perhaps the goal was not to reinvent the wheel, but to show how great the wheel can be when you do it well, and in that case Jiminez has most definitely succeeded, marking himself as a director to watch in the process. The Blu-Ray from Drafthouse Films has excellent picture quality and a good selection of bonus features, including trailers, deleted scenes, and an informative feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary.


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