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Mama Weed | Review

Selective Affinities: High-Fives for Huppert & Hannelore Cayre in Vivacious French Neo-noir

Often described as cold, icy, impassive, and inscrutable, the performances of Isabelle Huppert, one of cinema’s most intensely celebrated actors, is usually discussed in terms of trepidation or audience estrangement. Part of the attraction for many be a performance style which revels in subtlety, veering easily into shades of derangement or manipulation, characters who are struggling for either equilibrium or control even when painted as studies in victimhood. Rarely is she termed warm, empathetic, or approachable, embodying characters often described as unlikeable, or in euphemistic terms, as frustrating. And rarely is she involved in projects which would be classified as comedy (unless it’s a“dark comedy”), and on the rare occasion she has, Huppert isn’t an easygoing lark.

Across a landscape littered with the remnants of auteurs from various countries for the past five decades, Isabelle Huppert is not a damsel in distress, even when the narrative may have suggested it as the reality for her character. In her latest perennial appearance, Mama Weed, which is not a comedy as its English language title suggests (the original title La Daronne translates to “The Matron” or “The Godmother”), but a pulpy crime drama adapted from a novel by Hannelore Cayre, and finds Huppert as an unexpectedly empathetic working-class French-Arabic translator for a Parisian narcotics police unit. While not an entirely gritty film, it’s a slickly paced, sharply characterized example of well-executed pulp, elevated by Huppert in a performance as compelling as it is compassionate.

Patience Portefeux (Huppert) has worked painstakingly for a narcotics police unit. An occupation which might have once felt useful has recently become overwhelming considering she’s significantly underpaid. Behind on her rent in an apartment building in which she is the only non-Chinese occupant, her inability to pay for her mother’s (Liliane Rovere) luxury nursing home dwelling has resulted in an impending eviction for her ailing parent. Small pleasures come from a sort-of stagnant romance with her boss (Hippolyte Girardot) and her rapport with Kadidja (Farida Ouchani), one of the workers assigned to care for her mother. Meanwhile, she has just finished paying off two decades’ worth of debt left by her dead husband, who was seemingly involved in nefarious activities, and her two daughters are now grown and pursuing their own vocations. While working on her latest assignment, in which her unit has been organizing a major drug bust, Patience learns the driver bringing a huge transport of hashish into Paris is the son of Kadidja. Foiling her colleagues to assist her friend’s son, her intervention allows him to dump the hash before he’s detained, lessening the charges against him significantly. Adopting a retired narcotics sniffing dog named DNA, Patience takes it upon herself to find the stash and sell it. Utilizing the skills of two young men whose conversations she’s been transcribing at work, Scotch and Cocoa Puff (Rachid Guellaz, Mourad Boudaoud), her new persona, coined “The Matron,” soon becomes the prime target of her own narcotics unit. Donning the persona of a mysterious Moroccan woman, Patience must offload all the drugs and then launder the money as both the law and the violence-prone recipients of those drugs attempt to find her.

If Lon Chaney earned the nickname ‘Man of a Thousand Faces,’ by now Huppert is surely worthy of the ‘Woman of a Thousand Temperaments.’ Initial dismay of production stills featuring Huppert in a hijab will likely court further controversy since Patience Portefeux is a character who is half French, half Algerian, which to some might be a tall order for the famed redhead to logically embody. But both Huppert and Salome approach the juxtaposition of the character’s cultural heritages with considerable sympathy, and as the narrative unveils, becomes an intricate network featuring women of various nationalities forced into a gray area of survival vs. moral fortitude. As such, Mama Weed is really a ‘story of women,’ to borrow from Chabrol’s 1988 title starring Huppert as a WWII abortionist. Farida Ouchani (from Cantet’s The Class, 2008) and newcomer Nadja Nguyen provide Huppert with surprising levels of camaraderie. When Kadidja initially tries to explain her family isn’t all ‘bad,’ there’s succinct comfort in Patience’s response – “Everyone wants an easier life.” Salome crafts a careful characterization for Patience, which streamlines effectively with her current transition from law-abiding citizen to enterprising criminal, with snippets of conversation pointing to an oppressive criminal justice system, which, not unlike other countries, works to the advantage of the privileged. True, Mama Weed doesn’t have the opportunity to explore this to any greater depth despite in passing to help explain Patience’s shifting allegiances, but it assists in helping the film to be a greater conversation piece than one might predict.

Shot by Julien Hirsch (Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley, 2006), it’s a handsome production which tends to highlight Huppert’s beauty (whose commanding onscreen presence has grown into something like late period Marlene Dietrich—look no further than Huppert’s significant physical prowess transporting the exorbitant amount of hashish on her lonesome, never breaking a sweat, of course) and some excellent snippets of bustling Parisian streets, including an anxiety-laden close call for the Matron. Surprisingly, Huppert gets a lot less time to spend in a dead-end relationship with boss and lover Philippe (Girardot previously played one of her amorous counterparts in Diane Kurys’ Love After Love, 1992) or her two daughters (Iris Bry, Rebecca Marder). More of a plot catalyst is Liliane Rovere (Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, 1978) as her dementia suffering mother—in one of several recent narratives wherein Huppert must contend with the death of, from Edith Scob in Things to Come or Judith Magre in Elle (both 2016) or Emmanuelle Riva in Amour (2012). Her nighttime proclivities listening and transcribing to the phone conversations of petty criminals recalls The Lives of Others (2006), which the narrative veers away from aggressively once Patience decides her occupation benefits a problematic power structure.

Although less brilliant than the satirical Tip Top (2013), this is hardly the frothy urban comedy of, say, Paulette (2012), which featured Bernadette Lafont as a struggling geriatric who turns to selling drugs in baked goods. Likely to best Salome’s previous well-traveled offering, The Chameleon (2010), his Mama Weed, which ends perfectly in the Sultanate of Oman utilizing a bittersweet score from Bruno Calais, is a smooth cocktail which benefits from a crackerjack Isabelle Huppert performance with one of her most relatable characters.

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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