Isabelle Huppert is easily one of the world’s most accomplished and talented actors. She is also one of its most versatile, having spread her long career across films as varied as French prestige dramas, Hollywood westerns, and even the South Korean avant-garde. Given her reputation and career diversity, it almost seems perverse to see her headline a mainstream comedy. Nonetheless, here she is in Jean-Paul Salomé’s La Daronne – also known as The Godmother here in Australia and the gaudier Mama Weed in the USA. It was a commercial hit in COVID-stricken France last September and will play at the Alliance Francais French Film Festival in March. Beyond that, it seems likely that the next time a broad audience can see it will be with the inevitable American remake.
Patience Portefeux (Huppert) is an Arabic language translator for the Paris police. An impulsive choice to aid a friend during a police sting operation sees her inherit more than one-and-a-half tonnes of hashish, and leads her to an elaborate scheme to rid herself of the drugs before her own colleagues track down and identify her.
This is, broadly speaking, overly familiar stuff. The film attempts to chart a wobbly path between straight-up comedy and a police-oriented drama. This process of blending genres often defeats its efforts at comedy gags and set-ups, but in return often fails to deliver too much in the way of interesting drama. It also has an unfortunate tendency to cast all non-Caucasian characters as criminals. It is entertaining throughout, and the jokes that land best really do make it a fun film to watch, but there is always that disappointing sense that a better version of its story was hidden just over the horizon. Elements that really stand out – such as drug dealers conducting business inside first-person shooter videogames to avoid police telephone surveillance – do not so much lift the overall work as draw attention to its shortcomings elsewhere. It is, in a sense, a good film whose caveats need hand gestures; it is a fun ride, but only this much fun.
While there is a sense of Huppert ‘slumming it’ for such a generic and populist feature, it also cannot be denied she is the film’s strongest asset. A strong handle on character manages to make Patience’s criminal enterprise oddly endearing, and Huppert’s performance carries it all with surprising depth and originality. The only niggling frustration with her character is her age: with two daughters in their early 20s Patience seems to be about 50, while Huppert is visibly approaching 70. It can be put out of mind easily enough, but does occasionally jar.
Hippolyte Girardot is effective as Patience’s love interest and superior officer Philippe. The plot requires Patience to outsmart Philippe at almost every turn, and Girardot manages to pull off his side of the situation without actually making Philippe seems incompetent. Jade-Nadja Nguyen provides an unexpected amount of additional comedy as Patience’s land lady Collette.
The Godmother is an easy enough film to like, but there simply is not quite enough effort put into earning the viewer’s love. It hits satisfying beats, and it avoids a lot of stereotypes of French comedy if not those of drug-dealing comedy. Huppert is always worth watching, while Salomé directs in a broadly effective manner. Not great, but good.
The Godmother is screening at the 2021 Alliance Française French Film Festival across Australia from March. Click here for more information.