The “war on drugs” has been waged globally since the 1970s as a sort of never-ending campaign. Its combatants are many, and its casualties immeasurable. Its battlefields are city streets and classrooms, private residences and police interrogation chambers. Who’s been winning? Well it’s a tricky question, doubly so since it’s a war whose very definition hinges on an idea of murky morality— that is to say the proposition that drugs are inherently bad (and those who use are criminals) is a flimsy one at best.
It’s a game of opportunistic hypocrisy played by governments and law enforcement, oftentimes at the expense of young men and women who are given harsh sentences for minor infractions. Designations can feel arbitrary—why are caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol legal, while cocaine, psilocybin, and MDMA are not? And punishments are doled out in a series of entrapments and con games perpetrated by police stings and double-crossings.
For some, the decriminalization of marijuana marks a step in the right direction––a move that seems to herald the beginning of the end of this so called “war.” In Chicago, recreational weed became legal in January 2020, making it no longer a crime to carry a certain amount, and partake in one’s own home. Like in other states where marijuana has been decriminalized, it wasn’t just a victory for those who imbibe, but rather a win for social justice and personal freedom. It’s easy to lose sight of who the “enemy” is in this war after all, because the enemy is oftentimes our neighbor, our friend, our colleague, our sibling, our child.
It’s a realization that Isabelle Huppert’s character makes in Mama Weed, the French film premiering stateside this week courtesy of Music Box Films. Jean-Paul Salomé directs the picture as a sort of social satire of good guys versus bad, with his story tiptoeing the hazy lines that delineate the two.
Huppert plays Patience Portefeux, a widowed police translator who specializes in Arabic and has been tasked with transcribing the phone calls between some low-level hash dealers in Paris (where pot is still illegal) who seem to be gearing up for a massive new shipment. Patience takes to her job with the sort of detached ambivalence one gives to menial office-work––she’s not against it, per se, but you sense a boredom, maybe a trace of resentment as she goes about her day. It’s an ennui she carries into her personal life, whether in her lukewarm affair with her police chief boss Philippe (Hippolyte Girardo), or with her frequent visits to her ailing mother (Liliane Rovere) in an expensive assisted living facility.
It all changes when Patience learns over wiretap that Khadija (Farida Ouchani), one of the nurses caring for her mother, is actually the mother of one of the smugglers pulling off the big hash job. It’s sort of like a comedic The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Cold War drama about a spy who becomes obsessed with a couple he is tasked to surveil; in Mama Weed, Huppert’s Patience is drawn in by the fact that the people she’s helping bring down are sons and brothers, not to mention immigrants like her own parents, desperately trying to make enough money to survive.
The stakes are personal as well for Patience: If Khadija’s son is caught, then her own mother loses the best care. So Patience tips off Khadija who in turn tells her son that the police are ready to bust him. He ditches the hash—a whole ton off a truck deceptively packed with fruit—but is still apprehended. It’s here that Mama Weed realizes its title character, as Patience finds the stash and, in an effort to move the product from police detection and make enough cash to pay her mother’s bills, adopts the persona of a drug-dealing Moroccan.
Tooling around Paris in a hijab, and using burner phones to connect with two dealers nicknamed Scotch and Cocoa Puff (Rachid Guellaz and Mourad Boudaoud) Huppert brings an air of old school charm to Mama Weed, and lends it the feeling of a caper. She’s an elegant actress who graces almost every frame of the picture, and coolly plays her dual role of cop and robber––Huppert can convey a page worth of story with an eye-raise, mountains of contempt with a simple pursed lip, and she does a lot to carry the movie here. The plotting runs a little thin—with Patience juggling laundering the money, keeping one step ahead of her colleagues, and making do with her dealers—but it’s such a delight watching Huppert that even tedious scenes feel breezy.
I get the feeling that Mama Weed is aiming for a deeper social commentary, but its arguments lie mostly on the surface. There’s something to be said about France and its complicated relationship with its Muslim population, and in particular the adversarial relationship between law enforcement and non-nationals. But director Jean-Paul Salomé largely eschews grand thematic pondering in service of Patience’s dramatic arc, which turns out to be one of personal surrender, acceptance and closure. When Huppert laments about her ennui in in the beginning of the film, she says “It’s not the work. It’s existential. I’m worried about my future,” with a clear-eyed certainty. As the audience, we believe her.
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