Isabelle Huppert isn’t just an incredibly physical actress, she’s the kind of actress who shifts our very understanding of physicality whenever she moves. In Mama Weed, a modestly entertaining new French comedy about a middle-aged police translator who transforms into a drug kingpin, she seems to change the way she walks in every scene — a scurry here, a sashay there — letting her legs do as much emoting as her eyes or her mouth.
In almost Chaplinesque fashion, Huppert puts every muscle she has in service to a scene, whether she’s casually punching her palm as she cooks up an alibi or desperately fanning herself with a wedding invite while she contemplates her next move. This should be a no-brainer, method-wise — every actor should ideally use their whole body — but in truth, very few performers can pull this off because nobody actually moves this way in real life. We only ever really see it in the movies, and even then, rarely. If anyone else in Mama Weed tried it, they would come off as hopelessly phony.
But that’s the magic of Huppert, and her whirling, anxious performance is the main reason to see this picture. She stars as Patience, an Arabic translator for the cops who’s already uncomfortable with the impact her work is having on the city’s young immigrants when she discovers that her colleagues’ latest quarry, Afid (Yasin Houicha), just happens to be the son of the kindly nurse (Farida Ouchani) who looks after Patience’s ailing mother (Liliane Rovère). In the middle of a sting operation, Patience warns the kid to ditch the hash that he’s transporting. When Afid still winds up in jail, she finds the spot where he hid his massive stash and moves it to the basement of her apartment building. She puts on a hijab and a pair of dark sunglasses and reinvents herself as a mysterious Moroccan supplier named Mrs. Ben Barka for a pair of down-on-their-luck dealers. (Nobody actually believes she’s Moroccan, of course — that Patience is not who she’s pretending to be just serves to make her more enigmatic to everyone around her.) Then, she takes her drug earnings and launders them with the help of her Chinese landlord Colette (Nadja Nguyen), who herself seems to have a thriving black-market business she runs out of her apartment.
Everybody around Patience appears to have a foot in the underworld, perhaps because it’s impossible to get by in this overpriced society otherwise. The drug dealers she works with are themselves working-class folks. We keep hearing about rising rents and the ridiculous costs of nursing homes. Patience herself is already under mountains of debt because of the mess her late con-artist husband left behind. Her bedridden mom still dreams of the fancy life she led thanks to Patience’s gangster father. Patience is not good at being ruthless, but she does seem to glide naturally into crime — it’s in her blood, and it’s also the only way to survive in this world. (She even shoplifts a small dinosaur toy from a museum shop for a young boy.) Meanwhile, newly promoted police chief Philippe (Hippolyte Girardot), who also happens to be in love with Patience, drives himself crazy trying to identify and catch this mysterious new drug supplier, whom the cops have nicknamed “La Daronne.”
La Daronne is the film’s French title and more accurately translates as The Godmother, which was the English title of the acclaimed crime novel by Hannelore Cayre on which the movie is based. I haven’t read the book, but it sounds quite fascinating and perhaps more artful than the film. Director Jean-Paul Salomé doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel stylistically here. When Patience first emerges in her “Mama Weed” outfit, the film cues the pop soundtrack and cuts to a slow-motion shot of her stepping out of a cab and walking across the street. When she talks to Colette, jaunty Asian music plays in the background. Cinematically speaking, this is all low-hanging fruit. Maybe such unimaginative choices wouldn’t stand out so much if Huppert were herself not such an inventive and riveting performer. She is, and Mama Weed doesn’t really deserve her.
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