Connect the Dots, by David Bax
Cédric Jimenez’s The Connection is a mini-epic crime film that feels similar to a lot of other mini-epic crime films. For most of its runtime, it’s little more than the sum of its influences. That said, the parts are constructed and presented with a competent hand and, eventually, Jimenez manages to cobble together a distinct point of view. It might not be a revelatory film but it’s never boring.
The Connection of the title is the same French one from William Friedkin’s 1971 film, this time seen from the actual French side, specifically from the city of Marseilles, where magistrate Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin) is assigned to oversee the investigation, apprehension and prosecution of organized criminals. Almost all of these gangsters work for the syndicate of the title, run by Tany Zampa (Gilles Lellouche). For more than two hours covering close to a decade, these two monomaniacal, driven figures play a violent and expansive game of cat and mouse.
If that reminds you of Michael Mann’s Heat, you’re only beginning to scratch the surface. Most of the major elements of The Connection are stark parallels to other crime movies, mainly American ones. The pop/rock montages are pure Scorsese (the handheld camerawork is the Mean Streets to the plot’s The Departed). The advancement of the years recalls David Fincher’s Zodiac. The galloping momentum and blunt violence evoke Olivier Assayas’ Carlos. When Michel and his wife, Jacqueline (Céline Sallette, a wonderful actress who had much richer material in the 2012 series The Returned), argue about how his work has eclipsed their marriage, you’ll remember Anne Heche and Johnny Depp having the same fight in Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco. When we do arrive at the iconic moment from Heat – the face to face meeting of the two principals – Jimenez has Mann beat in at least one aspect. A hill overlooking the Mediterranean beats a table at Kate Mantilini any day. The one movie the gangsters forgot to emulate, though, is Miller’s Crossing. An entire bloody subplot could have been avoided if they’d only remembered Johnny Caspar’s advice to “always put one in the brain.”
For what it’s worth, these references are assembled with enough skill to come across as more than just namechecks. Still, the familiarity – particularly in the first half – gives the impression of a filmmaker going through the motions. That laziness results in some undercooked ingredients. For instance, Zampa is initially described as an untouchable figure at too high a remove from his business’s operations to ever get dirty. Yet, every time we see him, he appears to be remarkably hands on, forcing a dishonest lackey to ingest a near-lethal amount of cocaine as punishment or personally gunning down a turncoat.
Part of what makes The Connection’s shortcomings easy to overlook is the fantastic use of songs. Starting with an anachronistic but well-employed Lykke Li song, Jimenez goes on to employ more era-specific tracks from the likes of Serge Gainsbourg, Blondie, The Velvet Underground, Al Wilson, Townes Van Zandt and more.
In fact, the music plays a part in The Connection finally locating its own identity in its second half. When Zampa opens a nightclub, both as a gift to his wife and as a tax shelter, he is enraged by this new disco music. Meanwhile, Michel steps down from the investigation for a while to spend more time with his family and see his children grow up. There’s something about the passage of years going on in all this. Zampa wants to control things so much that he would freeze time if he could. While he morosely surveys the empire he’s built and fixates on his dead friends, Michel helps his daughters with their homework, investing in his legacy in a more loving and human way. It may take Jimenez a tad too long to discover the heart of his own story but he does get there and the journey, while conventional, is at least a good time.