Updated: Dec 4, 2021
As news of vaccine delays and further lockdowns across Europe start to haunt our newsfeeds, it's nice to know we have this encore season of the French Film Festival UK to fall back on as their virtual fff@home screenings continue throughout the month of March. We've already taken a look at Emmanuel Mouret's Love Affairs and Anne Fontaine's Night Shift, so now we turn our attention to one of this weekend's offerings: Jean-Paul Salomé's festival favourite, Mama Weed (La Daronne).
Based on the original novel La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre, who is herself a practising criminal lawyer, Mama Weed tells the story of Patience Portefeux (Isabelle Huppert), a French-Arabic police translator who is struggling to make ends meet with two grown-up daughters and a mother in a private nursing facility. She's been helping police in the anti-narcotics division, and ended up in a relationship with their chief inspector (Hippolyte Girardot), but everything changes when she overhears the mother of one of her targets and recognises her as the nurse (Farida Ouchani) who looks after her elderly mother. Not wanting to turn her in, or to break up their family, Patience spies an opportunity to help them while addressing her own financial concerns.
Using a couple of hapless dealers the police had previously investigated (Rachid Guellaz and Mourad Boudaoud), Patience adopts the alter ego of a (presumed) Moroccan gangster who the pair refer to as La Daronne. They help her to offload the drugs that have come into her possession, which quickly becomes a race against time as both the police and the original owners start to close in. It's a thrilling scenario, but easy to see why the film has been classified as a comedy caper by some. There are a number of genuinely funny, laugh-out-loud moments, which feel almost Tarantino-esque in their appeal, as Patience continues to slip the net and the (real) bad guys head towards their inevitable comeuppance. Naturally you're rooting for her to get away with it all and, as unlikely circumstances conspire to make that possible, you can't help but cheer.
In the context of the film, La Daronne is translated as The Matron, although the more accurate translation is French slang for The Mum or Mother. It's a colloquial expression, but it fits this enigmatic figure who the police start hearing more about in wire-tapped conversations. It's also a wonderful title for the film in French, although I can understand why they opted for the more descriptive Mama Weed in English, especially from a marketing perspective. They also probably wanted to steer clear of the novel's English title, The Godmother, as that's the name of Jennifer Lopez's upcoming film about real-life Colombian drug lord, Griselda Blanco. Referred to as La Madrina (not dissimilar to La Daronne), she was a key figure in the Miami drug wars throughout the 1980s into the early 2000s.
Aside from its gripping underworld story, Mama Weed excels in its depiction of the cultural melting pot that is modern-day Paris/France. Patience herself is of uncertain origin, but we're drip-fed clues throughout the film as we find out more about her parents' extravagant lives as former swindlers, and her own husband's dodgy dealings when they were younger. Although none of it is spelled out in detail, we know she's a widow after he died suddenly from a stroke at the age of 34, and he was buried somewhere in Oman. This certainly explains her grasp of Arabic, but less explained is how she ended up as the only French occupant of an apartment complex owned and operated by a Chinese immigrant. Patience has always been the odd one out in the building, yet her new guise provides a means of connection and rapport with her mysterious landlady (Nadja Nguyen).
There's a lot to appreciate about Mama Weed, but it takes the skill of someone like Isabelle Huppert to really sell the concept, and once it's got you it doesn't let go until the very end. Understandably it's been compared to Breaking Bad, particularly for North American audiences, but I think it has more in common with Jonathan Cohen's current Netflix vehicle, Family Business, which has just been renewed for a third season. Coincidentally, the series also stars César Award nominee Julia Piaton (Love Affairs) and Liliane Rovère, who appears as Patience's mother in Mama Weed, but is more famously known to recent audiences as Arlette Azémar in Call My Agent! (Dix pour cent).
I haven't seen any of Jean-Paul Salomé's previous films, although I did recently pick up Female Agents (Les femmes de l'ombre) on DVD, so I'll certainly be keeping an eye out for future ones. Aside from directing Mama Weed, he co-wrote the film adaptation with author Hannelore Cayre, for which they received a Best Adaptation nomination at this year's 46th annual César Awards. Salomé is also responsible for the 2004 production of Arsène Lupin, starring Romain Duris and the incomparable Kristin Scott Thomas, which I've been dying to watch since the recent Netflix series starring Omar Sy.
As you can tell, there's no shortage of wonderful French films out there to savour and enjoy, but Mama Weed is an exceptional crowd-pleaser that receives my highest possible recommendation for those looking to partake in the at-home cinema experience of the French Film Festival UK this weekend. Stay tuned for further coverage of the festival and, in the meantime, you can watch director Jean-Paul Salomé's introduction to the film online here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCMpCXKLD4s