This latest film from Jean-Paul Salomé takes its title from the novel by Hannelore Cayre, La Daronne whose meaning is open to variations, several of which cropped up during the film. Ranging from ‘matron’ to ‘old lady’ to ‘godmother’ (in a mafiosa sense) to a plain old slang version of Mum but the chosen English title of the film is Mama Weed.
In this black comedy, set in the north of Paris in environs of Belleville and Ménilmontant, whose streets will be familiar to fans of the cult French cop drama Spiral (Engrenages), Isabelle Huppert brilliantly inhabits the role of the oddly named Patience Portefeux, a woman who works for the police as an Arabic translator.
This widow of over 20 years, who is up to her eyes in debt following the early death of her crooked husband Martin, has two daughters (the excellent Iris Bry from Les Guardiens as Hortense and Rebecca Marder as Gabrielle) to bring up alone. On top of that her difficult and aged mother (Liliane Rovère), who according to the cast list oddly shares her daughter’s married name, is in a care home with mounting fees that Patience can’t afford but that gives her the peace of mind of the good attention from carer Kadidja (Farida Ouchani). She does however have a new man in her life in the form of her colleague, the mild, pleasant but seemingly ineffectual police chief Phillippe (Hippolyte Girardot).
When one day during her transcriptions she recognises the voice of Kadidja speaking to her drug dealing son Afid (Yasin Houicha) instead of translating what she hears, types the words- “Conversation of no relevance to the current investigation”. Under the eyes of her cop colleagues, she manufactures an excuse to leave and goes to alert Kadidja that her son is in danger.
And so begins her double life as police translator and the drug dealing criminal that is La Daronne, with any conflict of public and private interest evaporating like water on a hot stone. Her ease at creating her new persona involves turning herself into a full designer hijab-wearing mastermind who runs rings round the two clown figures of Scotch (nothing to do with whisky – more to do with sticky tape) and Chocapic (respectively Rachid Guellaz and Mourad Boudaoud). Huppert herself easily morphs into the dual role of the ‘innocent’ translator and the hard-headed, glamorous calculating drug dealer and money launderer who cunningly adopts a retired police dog trained in drug sniffing under the pretext of saving it from being put down. Portefeux’s sense of survival is absolute and ruthless as she functions with increasing bravado in plain sight giving more of a sense of the ridiculous than of tension. Her lover Phillippe has clearly left his police powers of observation at Patience’s apartment door as he fails to pick up the physical signals of her disengagement with him.
While the film refreshingly crashes stereotypes of women, with Patience finding a sister crook in her Chinese neighbour Colette (Nadja Nguyen), and exposes immigrant workers in low paid caring jobs, unless you are a fan of the crime genre as farce, some suspension of disbelief is required in this film version of the award winning novel.