The Hollywood Reporter writes…
French director Jean-Paul Salomé’s Paris-set crime caper stars Isabelle Huppert as a police interpreter who turns into a notorious drug kingpin.
Get your lighters out and start practicing your French because Isabelle Huppert’s about to roll you a big fat juicy spliff in Mama Weed (La Daronne), the new crime dramedy from director Jean-Paul Salomé.
Cleverly conceived and amusingly performed, if never quite as funny as it could be, the film has the Oscar-nominated Huppert playing a seasoned police interpreter who transforms into a drug kingpin nearly overnight. As crazy as that sounds, Salomé’s portrait of a middle-aged woman trying to make ends meet on her own, and selling hundreds of kilos of narcotics to do so, proves to be a tender study of emancipation with few regrets.
Based on the book by Hannelore Cayre, who also co-wrote the script, Mama Weed — whose French-language title, La Daronne, is slang for “mom” — has pulled off a decent theatrical run in France since its September release, raking in more than 400,000 admissions amid the ongoing pandemic. Sold to dozens of overseas territories, this simpatico crowd pleaser could find an audience with diehard Huppert fans in the U.S., and perhaps make way for a Hollywood remake that doubles down on the comedy.
Not that there’s anything all-that original about such a rags-to-kilos scenario nowadays, which has been exploited in popular TV series like Weeds or Breaking Bad, and in movies like We’re the Millers or the 2012 French film Paulette, which featured the late Bernadette Lafont as a grandma turned dope dealer in a banlieue outside of Paris.
What sets Mama Weed apart is Huppert’s unusual character, who bears the somewhat ridiculous name of Patience Portefeux and works as an Arabic-to-French translator for a squad of Paris narcotics officers headed up by the kind, if rather bumbling, Philippe (Hippolyte Girardot).
At first blush, the studious Patience hardly seems like the right candidate to become a drug lord. She takes her job seriously, assisting in all the police interrogations and wire tappings, although she also has a fair amount of compassion for some of the suspects.
As the lengthy set-up soon reveals, Patience actually harbors a criminal past, with a long-dead husband who was involved in an international trafficking operation, and a dying mother (Liliane Rovère) who had her hand in various illegal enterprises back in the day.
This goes a long way — though perhaps not all the way — in explaining why Patience, after preventing a drug bust that would have resulted in the arrest of the son of her mother’s favorite nurse (Farida Ouchani), decides to steal a ton and a half of freshly delivered Moroccan hashish and distribute it herself.
To do so, she dons a costume of colorful headscarves (some by Hermès), bling-bling sunglasses and long robes, looking like a Saudi princess who’s just arrived in Paris on a shopping spree. It may not be the most tactful outfit to wear if you’re hoping to avoid police detection, but it does allow Huppert to strut her stuff while she does all sorts of badass things, like brandishing a handgun or sicking her newly acquired, police-trained killer dog on any dealer who gets in her way.
Despite her disguise, Patience always remains a step ahead of the cops, thwarting their investigations through her ongoing work as an interpreter. She’s also having a helpful affair with the squad’s captain, Philippe, that could blossom into a full-blown relationship if she’d only let it.
Patience remains fiercely independent in a way women don’t always do in French movies, preferring to run her empire like a single-handed Stringer Bell, arranging deals with a pair of low-level thugs (Rachid Guellaz, Mourad Boudaoud) outside prisons or inside supermarkets, and teaming up with her Chinese neighbor (Jade Nadja Nguyen) to launder the proceeds.
Salomé makes sure that everything we’re seeing is believable to an extent, adding gritty details like how dealers talk to each other through online gaming platforms in case their phones are tapped, or how drug shipments are made from Morocco to France via “go slow” deliveries, in this case on board a fruit truck.
Such tidbits compensate for the film’s more eye-rolling coincidences, like a CCTV camera that malfunctions at exactly the right moment during a police bust in Paris’ Barbès neighborhood. And they help add a touch of reality when the jokes fall flat, like in the scene where Patience is suddenly getting down to hip-hop in her car with no rhyme (literally) or reason. (One detail that also doesn’t work concerns the English-language title: Patience is not actually selling weed but hashish, which is made of cannabis resin and comes in thick blocks that look like chocolate bars — or “shit,” as the French commonly call it.)
You tend to let such things slide because, not unlike Jackie Brown, Mama Weed is ultimately less a comedy than a heartfelt crime story about a woman of a certain age who gets the chance to change her life and decides to take it, no matter what the legal repercussions may be.
Some may take issue, understandably, with the fact that the French actress portrays a woman of partial North African origins, and one who winds up donning a hijab as a criminal disguise. But Huppert brings so much chic experience (over 120 screen credits and counting) and easygoing chutzpah to the part that, as with other outlandish aspects of Mama Weed, you may find yourself sort of just going with the flow. If this were a Cheech & Chong movie, which it surely could be, then it would probably be recommended to sample some of mama’s weed before watching it.
As with Salomé’s other films, including the underrated caper Playing Dead and the femme-driven World War II epic Female Agents, tech credits are top-notch, including warm lensing from Julien Hirsch (Bird People) and a playful thriller-esque score from Bruno Coulais (Coraline, The Chorus).
Production companies: Les Films du Lendemain, La Boétie Films
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Hippolyte Girardot, Farida Ouchani, Liliane Rovère, Jade Nadja Nguyen, Rachid Guellaz, Mourad Boudaoud, Iris Bry, Rebecca Marder
Director: Jean-Paul Salomé
Screenwriters: Hannelore Cayre, Jean-Paul Salomé, in collaboration with Antoine Salomé, based on the book ‘La Daronne’ by Hannelore Cayre
Producers: Kristina Larsen, Jean-Baptiste Dupont
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Françoise Dupertuis
Costume designer: Marité Coutard
Editor: Valérie Deseine
Composer: Bruno Coulais
Casting director: Juliette Denis
Sales: Le Pacte
In French, Arabic