Legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert turns her hand to the drug trade in director Jean-Paul Salomé’s Paris-set dramedy Mama Weed (La Daronne). As a police interpreter who uses her insider knowledge to become a drug kingpin, Huppert elevates what is an average, albeit entertaining, crime caper.
Based on the book by Hannelore Cayre, who also co-wrote the script, Mama Weed tells the story of Patience Portefeux, a widowed, mother of two who spends her days consumed by her role as a French-to-Arabic interpreter for a squad of Paris narcotics officers. With time also split between visiting her ill mother (Liliane Rovère) in a nursing home, Patience struggles to make the payments needed to keep her there. These circumstances take a drastic turn when as chance would have it, one of the dealers that the police are phone tapping as part of a bust is the son of her mother’s carer, Khadija (Farida Ouchani). Choosing to tip off Khadija to her son’s imminent arrest and instructing him to ditch the hash he’s transporting from Morocco; Patience suddenly volunteers to locate the shipment herself, before usurping its intended recipients and taking over the distribution.
Cue an amusing sequence of events as Patience steps into her new life with aplomb; working with two malleable, low-level dealers, setting up handovers in prison parking lots and using her position as interpreter to mislead the investigation. All of these are somewhat risky choices, further complicated by the fact that she’s dating the kind yet shrewd Phillippe (Hippolyte Girardot), the chief inspector on the same case.
The best thing about Mama Weed is the routes it chooses not to go down. Patience isn’t a fragile wallflower who through desperation devolves into a crime lord al la Breaking Bad. While her motivation for the decision arises from financial necessity and opportunity, it’s revealed that Patience has always been just a few degrees of separation from someone on the wrong side of the law. A father from Algeria who stole to eat when he arrived in France, a mother who dabbled in illegal enterprises once upon a time, and a deceased husband who was involved in international trafficking. Knowledge of these connections goes some way to explaining her lack of judgement towards those who commit crimes. As she casually comments to Phillippe when discussing the case and hinting at her parent’s less savory actions, ‘life takes its path’. Her own path leads her to her building owner Collette (Jade Nadja Nguyen), a Chinese woman of a similar age who is also an unapologetic crime matriarch of sorts. The two form a functional friendship as Patience launders her money through Collette’s businesses.
In forgoing any emotional conflict, Salomé continues to craft an effective picture of a Paris full of people defiantly doing what they deem necessary to provide a life for themselves. Patience’s absence of remorse also leaves room for a character who is simply sharp, logical and bold, making Huppert perfect casting. With an unflappable demeanor, even in the moments her double life challenges her, Huppert brings a coolness that is magnetic to watch throughout. Salomé has fun depicting Patience’s transformation from interpreter to impeccably dressed outlaw. Music booms and Huppert strides across the streets of Paris wearing colourful headscarves, blinged out sunglasses and red lipstick designed to do anything but fly under the radar. There are moments of humour in the film that stop short of being fully played for laughs, and while this is at times a wise choice – older white woman dancing to hip hop music in the car is a more than little played out, for example – it does give the film an air of never being as funny as it could be, something we know someone as skilled and committed as Huppert could undoubtedly accomplish without straying into a direction that feels too slapstick.
Mama Weed is less a story about reclaiming agency, but more about taking chances without looking back. While some may yearn for the comedy elements it teases without indulging in, it’s a clever, engaging character study that lets Huppert have fun, which is truly a treat to behold.
Mama Weed is available in theatres from July 16 and on digital from July 23, 2021.