Isabelle Huppert shines in this thrilling film about a good cop gone bad.
Isabelle Huppert is nothing short of a legendary actress, and one of the best of all time. So it’s no surprise that she takes centrestage and steals the limelight in her latest film Mama Weed (La Daronne), the opening film for the 2020 French Film Festival in Singapore.
Adapted from Hannelore Cayre’s novel of the same name, Mama Weed begins slow, where for much of the first third of the film, beyond an initial action-packed drug raid, we mostly learn about the daily life of French-Arabic police translator and wiretap specialist Patience Portefeux (Huppert). While excellent at her job, lately, she’s been falling behind on payments across the board, from rent to payment for her ailing mother’s expensive nursing home.
For anyone who’s facing such difficulties, the chance to get rich quick is always a tempting opportunity, and when Patience discovers her mother’s nurse is also the mother to a wanted drug dealer, she thinks on her feet and moves in fast, and ends up in possession of a massive stash of hashish. While she initial takes some time to find her feet in the world of drug trafficking, she quickly uses her wits to set herself up, capitalising on both her language abilities and policer resources to plan her rise to power.
Huppert is a chameleon of an actress, and the transformation from world-weary translator to drug kingpin is a remarkable one. Donning a leopard-print hijab, a heavy gold chain. and massive shades, Huppert’s performance imbues Patience with new verve for life, and she settles into her new role of the glamorous ‘Mama Weed’ with little hesitation, considering her philosophy of the ends justifying the means, with her own immigrant parents having resorted to petty crime upon their arrival in France.
Huppert’s whimsical, light-hearted performance gives Patience an irresistible charm, containing the allure of a powerful woman (bringing to mind Huppert’s Oscar-nominated performance in Elle) and a resourceful free spirit making full use of everything and everyone at her disposable to get what she wants. An anti-hero to the last, it’s hard not to be completely enraptured by the confidence with which she carries herself, talking down to her cronies and devising clever new schemes for getting around the law. There is an audacity and devil-may-care attitude to her ways that allows audiences to fall in love with ‘La Daronne’ (‘The Godmother’), as she dumps her nondescript bag filled with bars of weed into the back of taxis, or enjoying her newfound financial freedom and paying her debts (and more) upfront.
Huppert is undoubtedly the star here, but she’s also backed up by a good supporting cast who help her shine even brighter. Nurse Kadidja (Farida Ouchani) and landlord Colette (Nadja Nguyen) are unlikely conspirators to Patience’s rise to power, whether teaching her to communicate discreetly via a video game or helping her launder off her wealth, while Patience’s bumbling new cronies Scotch (Rachid Guellaz) and Chocapic (Mourad Boudaoud) are delightful when they need to be, with their incompetence eventually setting up for a thrilling chase towards the end of the film. Finally, hapless new police chief Philippe (Hippolyte Girardot) is at his wit’s end trying to track down Mama Weed, when she’s literally the person he’s dating, and hammers home the idea of nouveau female empowerment in a world run by men.
While Mama Weed does fizzle a little following a climactic shootout, it’s impossible not to feel uplifted by the wild ride Patience goes through over the course of the film. Thanks to Huppert’s stellar performance, Mama Weed achieves that careful balance between entertainment and French introspection, leaving us satisfied by Patience’s meteoric (if temporary) rise in the drug trafficking world. Watch this for an unusual female empowerment film, and if you wish to be amazed by Huppert’s screen presence once again.