Think of Isabelle Huppert’s Mama Weed as a correlative to Matt Damon’s Stillwater, except that the French movie benefits from sympathy with its heroine’s ambivalent social identity without giving in to the condescension of the American film.
It’s a matter of wit: Mama Weed observes the existential comedy of its protagonist’s multiethnic French and Algerian lineage — she translates police wiretaps of Muslim drug dealers — while Stillwater criticizes its American protagonist for his narrow-minded, parochial citizenship.
These different approaches to parallel dilemmas illustrate the political tendencies of film culture in the globalist era. It is through Mama Weed’s action-comedy format that Huppert and writer-director Jean-Paul Salomé grapple with France’s guilt about colonizing Algeria, a lingering uncertainty that has expanded into the current identity crisis of Europe and the entire West.
Mama Weed’s original French title is La Daronne, a female derivation of “Godfather,” which suggests that the filmmakers are going after a gangster-genre effect. Huppert plays Patience Portefeux, a narc who, despite her education and professional specialization, suffers divided allegiance. She can barely afford hospital care for her ailing mother, and she supports her own young-adult daughters. Plus, there’s stress from Patience’s own quasi-Muslim background. These career-woman complications are meant to explain Patience intercepting a connection between a Moroccan drug shipment and the Parisian immigrant dealers she fondly dubs “Scotch and Coco Puff.”
Salomé’s script mixes TV-style action with art-house social-consciousness (helped by glowing colors from Julien Hirsch, Andre Téchiné’s longtime cinematographer). It’s facile — half sociological, half farcical — but there are extenuating details. Patience projects onto a kindly Muslim nurse, Kadidja (Farida Ouchani), the guilt that she feels over the decline of her once fashionable mother. Catching the woman’s drug-courier son on tape, she breaks ranks and self-righteously protects him.
This is the warped psychology of the sophisticated bourgeois liberal. Patience even translates one Arabic conversation (“I looked at you so much today, my eyes are filled with light”) as poetry. She can’t control her mixed feelings about cosmopolitan Europe, eventually identifying her own turn to crime (single-handedly unloading over a ton of hashish) with her money-laundering landlady, Madame Fo (Nadja Nguyen): “She’s like me, only Chinese.”
It’s amusing to see Huppert escape the yoke of high art in Mama Weed. She finds a delicate balance between coy femininity and illicit professionalism even though Patience’s escapades (and rebuffs of her amatory boss) raise troubling issues and then half-trivializes them. This is the flip side of Huppert’s Claude Chabrol film Comedy of Power (2006), where she portrayed an unpredictable public magistrate. Here, tiny Huppert exhibits Parisian chic when she dons the guise of a Muslim drug lord in several stylish hajibs. She also adopts a retired K9 German shepherd, puckishly named DNA.
In her funniest, most self-conscious scene, Patience gets embarrassed at becoming a hip-hop-loving stereotype. It signifies how that American title, Mama Weed, is a corruption of cultural expectations regarding the drug trade. Selling hashish is not the same as selling marijuana; there are different consequences and effects than the complexities and mysteries in that good, moral Chabrol film.
Unlike Chabrol’s droll character study, this less complicated contrivance reflects the recent change in cultural expectations and social-justice explanations. Huppert’s Patience evades criminality through bleeding-heart sentiment and Salomé’s too-soft satire. He lets himself off the hook when Patience doubts police work and turns political pundit: “All that to send kids to jail to get radicalized!” — as if disaffected youth were not already radicalized or not responsible for their choices. When Patience says, “Everyone wants an easier life” to justify Kadidja’s criminal expertise, the excuse is silly and belied by a scene in the sumptuous Galeries Lafayette that is a tribute to luxe and privilege. Has Huppert not seen Eastwood’s The Mule?
When Patience first introduces herself to Scotch and Coco Puff as Mrs. Ben Barka, it’s a nod to knowledgeable leftists (and homage to the disappearance of Moroccan dissident Ben Barka mentioned in Godard’s Made in USA) that disregards millennial youth’s ignorance of history. She’s never forthcoming about her Muslim past, her ethnic loyalties, or her private criminal streak. Mama Weed is a trifling gloss on serious issues, but it’s also about a woman and a civilization, both trying to come to terms with themselves.