At this point in evaluating the career of Isabelle Huppert, it’s mostly a matter of guessing which set of screen-acting conventions she’ll overturn next. As France’s most provocative movie star, Huppert seems to delight in choosing projects with an eye for the brand of perverse, borderline-menacing roles that most big-name film actors tend to instinctively avoid, for fear of scaring away their fan base.
She appears to enjoy the challenge. Where similar A-list talent offers harmless personas in comfy scenarios, Huppert is unafraid to give us, in recent films, a dying matriarch with a sharp tongue (Frankie), a Brothers-Grimm-style serial killer huddled in her home awaiting victims (Greta), the shark-like head of an unscrupulous family of real estate developers (Happy End) and a rape victim seeking violent revenge (Elle). Not a sweet, brownie-baking granny in the bunch.
Huppert’s latest big-screen vehicle, the stylish Mama Weed—by director Jean-Paul Salomé, adapted from a novel by criminal lawyer Hannelore Cayre—leaps over the boundaries of most policiers with hyperactive abandon. Widowed mother Patience Portefeux (Huppert) works in the intelligence section of the Paris police as a translator, interpreting the wiretap recordings and social media posts of Arabic-speaking drug dealers, and occasionally assisting in street busts. In an ordinary, fish-out-of-water cop movie, someone like her would face on-the-job sexism, and disarm with charm, en route to a station-house romance. Patience’s story is a little more complicated.
Her fluent Arabic comes from her family, who left Algeria long ago under a cloud of crime connections. These days, she and her two 20-something daughters live in the multicultural Ménilmontant district, but it’s difficult to maintain their lifestyle—not to mention the upkeep of her ailing mother (Liliane Rovère, from Call My Agent!), bedridden in an upscale senior facility—on Patience’s police pay. Luckily for Patience, her commandant at the cop shop (Hippolyte Girardot) is also her boyfriend. He’s the one who got her the job.
Nevertheless, she is tense, sleepless, broke, disillusioned and nearly burnt out. That’s why she quickly picks up on the news that two of the drug dealers she’s been surveilling, Scotch (Rachid Guellaz) and Chocopic (Mourad Boudaoud), are expecting a very large shipment of hashish being trucked up from Morocco. And even more coincidentally, the son of her mother’s kind-hearted caregiver Khadija (Farida Ouchani) is driving the van with the hash.
And so Patience spies an opportunity to do some illegal moonlighting in disguise as a glamorous female drug honcho in the Parisian underworld, a woman known as “La Daronne,” The Boss, the film’s French title—relying on her Arabic and the help of her police dog, as well as the inside information she gets from her day job with the flics. All that extra money means freedom for her, as she puts one over on the cops as well as the crooks. What could possibly go wrong?
There’s an indelible element of sadness in Patience. Her intricately staged criminal exploits are not occasions for uproarious hilarity, but rather an indicator of dissatisfaction with her life. Huppert’s patented icy amusement—in her best roles—toward other characters’ discomfort is here tempered with what we imagine to be moral aches and pains. The toy-dinosaur shoplifting scene with her boyfriend’s young son especially illustrates that point. Credit Huppert, Salomé and novelist Cayre, with Girardot and actor Nadja Nguyen—as Colette Fo, Patience’s crafty neighbor and partner in crime—receiving extra honors.
One plot wrinkle that doesn’t especially add up: Why is it that even though the police have the dope dealers on 24-hour video surveillance and phone taps, the cops can never manage to make that big bust? Chalk that up to movie magic, plus the notion that Huppert’s La Daronne floats above the everyday hustle and bustle, impervious to hostilities and looking like a million Euros. Nobody can touch this Mama Weed.
Available on VOD beginning July 23.