'The Connection' (R)

The Connection is the real-life story of the French Connection, as told from a French point of view and focusing around the city of Marseille, a center of drug trafficking in the 1970s. The French title for the film is La French, so the first thing we notice is that France actually uses the American term for describing its own criminal network.

The film stars Jean Dujardin, the radiantly confident and always-smiling star of The Artist. Here, in something of a departure, Dujardin smiles — really smiles — only once in about 135 minutes of screen time, as he plays the dedicated and borderline obsessive Pierre Michel, a real-life police magistrate who brought scores of criminals to justice in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Unlike most American films, this one cares about period styles, and so it’s lucky for Dujardin that he looks good in wide lapels and bushy sideburns.

The Connection is one of a variety of film that we know well in the United States, and so it’s interesting to see familiar conventions funneled through a different cultural sensibility. The most profound and obvious difference, implicit in our stories, is that Americans take it for granted that life makes sense, or that at least it should and probably will. The French are more willing to depict situations as messy and then live with the mess as a statement in itself.

Sometimes that leads to pointless nihilism masking as art. But sometimes, as in The Connection, you get a gripping thriller that, at the same time, challenges your assumptions about the purpose of the characters even bothering. Is the lone honest man a moral genius or someone too clueless to figure out the game he’s in?

Dujardin is splendid here, playing Michel as some combination of a fearless pit bull and a sweet, openhearted guy, the only unclouded, decent person in the entire film. There is something very pure about Dujardin onscreen, whether he’s playing a fatuous fool or a devoted public servant. At the base of his performances is an irreducible niceness of spirit. Here, he’s contrasted with Gilles Lellouche as Tany Zampa, the head of the drug cartel, who, like Michel, is youngish, handsome, something of a family man and not entirely unsympathetic, but skewed by his life choices.

Riveting from its first moments, The Connection is fascinating in its presentation of character, as well as for its glimpse into the workings of an international drug empire and into the ways an imaginative cop found to chip at its power. Considering what Michel was up against, it’s amazing he did as much as he did — remarkable, really, that he was able to do anything at all.

Cast: Jean Dujardin, Gilles Lelouche, Celine Sallette, Melanie Doutey.

Director: Cedric Jimenez.

Screenwriters: Audrey Diwan, Cedric Jimenez.

A Drafthouse Films release. Running time: 135 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Strong violence, drug content, vulgar language. In Miami-Dade: Tower; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood.

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