Whip-smart crime caper with the familiar insouciance of Isabelle Huppert a good starting point for a radical change
M, 105 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
For those familiar with the work of Isabelle Huppert, the opening scenes of tension and suspense in her new film will unspool as anticipated. In that the celebrated French actor, a strong screen presence since the 1970s when she appeared in The Lacemaker, has built a reputation on characters who are tough.
The results have been riveting in polarizing films like Elle, The Piano Teacher, and White Material. In some of the key roles of her career the Huppert persona has been proud, scornful, and not always easy to like. As a performer, she has been consistently brave and interesting on screen.
In The Godmother, her character goes by the name of Patience Portefeux. A name like that is a bit of a stretch, but this is much more comedy than it is a drama.
As a professional woman, with a PhD and expertise in Arabic language, she is an interpreter for the narcotics squad of Paris police. Often a step behind the armed officers as they raid apartments and interrogate suspects.
Late last year, The New York Times published its list of the best actors of the 21st century, to date. It is a provocative ranking drawn up by American critics and filmmakers, but intriguing. In it, Huppert is in effect rated as the top female actor, as she is second on the list after Denzel Washington.
‘Hard timz not done gone’
She is certainly marvellous here in this whip-smart, witty crime piece by writer-director, Jean-Paul Salome. Her acting so finely calibrated, with the familiar insouciance a good starting point for her transformation when she leaves her old life behind. It’s a great crime caper, in the tradition of the best.
Patience has not had it easy. At least not since she became a single parent at a young age. Some with whom she becomes closely associated might say that her ‘hard timz is not done gone’ yet.
There are two adult daughters (Iris Bry and Rebecca Marder) still with her in the apartment in vibrant Belleville district. And she is still paying off debts her husband left when he expired, pouf, face first into his Caesar salad. The costs for maintaining her ailing mother in quality aged care are starting to climb.
It’s been a tough gig, but hey, this is a comedy. Among the many amusing scenes, are the exchanges between Patience and her mum (Liliane Rovere). Mme Portefeux is a cantankerous, bed-bound elder, looked after with gentle, respectful forbearance by Kadidje (Farida Ouchani).
Patience also has her pleasing boyfriend, Philippe (Hippolyte Girardot). He’s a flic from the same department, her newly promoted boss, and likes to cook while she doesn’t seem to bother.
While translating the wiretaps, Patience suddenly realizes she is closely, if accidentally, connected to the family of a drug runner. With a tonne and a half of hash on board, Afid (Yasin Houicha) is driving along the motorway from Spain to Paris, to deliver to local crime networks.
As the daughter of an Algerian-born mafiosi and a holocaust camp survivor, Patience seems somehow destined to go somewhere interesting in life. She makes a critical decision which she cannot recant.
Patience wraps herself in a crossover hijab and starts collaborating with drug dealers, Scotch (Rachid Guellaz) and Cocoa Puff/Cocapic (Mourad Boudaoud). A pair of duffers.
The Godmother is also known by the title, Mama Weed, the name of the character that Patience becomes. As a smooth operator, a drug dealing madame, Huppert is a joy to watch.
A spirited screen romp with an inimitable actor
The screenplay is based on a novel of the same name by Hannelore Cayre. The young author has collaborated with Jean-Paul Salome and Antoine Salome on the screenplay.
No doubt the narco networks are represented benignly and most of the characters in The Godmother get the gentle treatment. From the Chinese landlady Colette (Nadja Nguyen) who drives a hard bargain, to Scotch and Cocoa Puff, a comedy duo. All except the gun-toting Arabic-speaking enforcers, that is. Everyone is paddling to stay afloat on the vast ocean of life, after all.
The Godmother, the novel this film is based on, must be a cracker and the source of much of its wicked wit. It has won several prestigious crime-writing awards but Huppert and the filmmakers have turned it into a spirited screen romp with an inimitable female protagonist.
First published in the Canberra Times on 23 May 2021