MOVIE OF THE WEEK July 16, 2021: MAMA WEED

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If necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, then being short on cash must be the godfather — or, in this case, godmother — of trying your hand at a life of crime. Such is the situation in Jean-Paul Salomé’s Mama Weed (based on Hannelore Cayre’s aptly named novel The Godmother), which stars Isabelle Huppert as Patience Portefeux, a police translator whose lack of funds leads her to seize a golden, albeit illegal, opportunity.

Patience, true to her name, spends her days dutifully cataloging conversations among suspected drug dealers for her paramour, newly minted police Chief Philippe (Hippolyte Girardot), translating wiretapped calls from Arabic into French. But her interactions with her failing mother (Liliane Rovère), who lives in an expensive assisted care facility, and adult daughters (Iris Bry and Rebecca Marder) reveal that Patience isn’t just strapped for cash. She’s also nostalgic for the less stable but more exciting days of her youth, when her parents regularly skirted the law to get by. And she misses her long-dead husband, who may have left her in the financial lurch but also gave life zest.

When Patience’s worlds collide and she ends up in possession of a massive quantity of hash, she sees a solution to several of her problems: She can sell the drugs for the cash she needs and also put a little excitement back into a routine that’s growing increasingly dull. Enter “Mama Weed,” a mysterious Moroccan woman who manages to stay a step or three ahead of the cops, no matter how hard they try to catch her.

This very French movie’s tone and subject matter may remind many viewers of two American TV shows, Weeds and Breaking Bad. Like both of those series, it creates sympathy for a character who, by most standards, is clearly in the wrong, whether she’s schlepping kilos of illegal drugs or shoplifting a toy dinosaur for her boyfriend’s son. But that positioning doesn’t make Patience any less intriguing, especially given Huppert’s thoroughly entertaining performance. Some of her best scenes are with her savvy landlady-turned-co-conspirator, Colette (Nadja Nguyen); forget Walter White or Nancy Botwin — let’s have a show starring these two! — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: A job translating Arabic to French for the Paris police narcotics unit puts Patience Portefeux (Isabelle Huppert) into an interesting position when her insider knowledge allows her access to a small fortune in high-grade hashish that the cops and the dealers are on the hunt for. Deeply in debt, Patience re-invents herself as the entrepreneur of the title, gaining a crash course in criminality to stay one step ahead of the lawful and unlawful dragnets gradually closing in on her as she seeks to unload her find. The magnificent Huppert is the film’s magnetic center, a droll presence as a woman with a good but larcenous heart. Director Jean-Paul Salomé crafts a satisfying caper built on her performance that balances tension and humor as this serene widow floods Paris with enough hash to give the whole city a contact high.

Loren King Isabelle Huppert is such a natural, appealing and luminous actress that she makes anything watchable. Director Jean-Paul Salomé’s French crime caper Mama Weed is a likable enough dramedy about a police interpreter tuned drug dealer but it’s Huppert that consistently elevates the material. She plays Patience Portefeux, an Arabic-to-French translator for a Paris narcotics team. Her personal life—caring for a mother with dementia (whose kind nurse figures prominently in the drug plot) and raising two daughters since the untimely death of her husband — have left Patience in financial straits. The backstory includes her the murky criminal pasts of her parents and her husband, all of which sets the stage for Patience to concoct a scheme when she comes into contact with high quality Moroccan hashish. It’s a preposterous plot. But watching Huppert confiscate the cartel with the help of a dope sniffing ex-police dog then don a series of chic headscarves for clandestine meetings the her unsuspecting Arabic middlemen plays like a mash up of “Weeds” and “Jackie Brown.” Like most quirky imports, the pleasures of Mama Weed won’t translate to the inevitable American remake which will no doubt accentuate slapstick over subtlety and won’t have Huppert who makes it all worthwhile.

Marilyn Ferdinand Patience Portefeux (Isabelle Huppert), a translator of Arabic who works for the Paris police, is having a difficult time making ends meet. She owes money to the Chinese manager of her apartment building, as well as to the nursing facility where her mother lives. When an opportunity arises to solve her financial problems and repay the kindness of her mother’s caregiver, she unhesitatingly masquerades as Mama Weed, a Muslim drug dealer. Huppert adds to her distinguished and storied career with an amusing, but complex portrayal of an enigmatic woman for whom personal loyalty, even to a long-dead husband, overrides virtually all other considerations. This energetic crime film thankfully eschews violence to focus on character dynamics, making it an interesting look inside the various communities that operate inside France’s capital.

Jennifer Merin Mama Weed is a charming French crime caper in which the always appealing Isabelle Hubbert stars as a wily and acutely economically challenged French/Arabic translator who works for the Paris police department’s narcotics squad and who winds up playing the system and all the macho cops who underestimate her smarts and wiles to score a solution that will get her out of debt and provide for some of her needy accomplices, as well. My run on sentence aside, Mama Weed is an entertaining, fun, slightly edgy femme-centric escapade. Popcorn is optional but highly recommended.

Sherin Nicole Mama Weed, also known as La Daronne (The Godmother), is listed as a comedy. It is an amusing film, yet the story beats come from capers with touches of crime drama. Meanwhile, the underlying but proliferating theme is: Women over fifty are underestimated and therefore make very good crime bosses. (It’s easier to evade arrest when the largely male police force can’t actually ‘see’ you). Isabelle Huppert is strong in the leading role, as expected, but an unexpected delight is Nadia Nguyen, as a building manager and accomplice who originally hails from Wenzhou, China. In a film full of bumbling scofflaws and haphazard officers, the two women’s hustle is fun to watch. However, we need to talk about the stereotypes: If you’re not white in this film you’re a criminal. So…that’s not great. And the main character, Patience, is meant to be Franco-Arab which makes her masquerade as a Muslim Moroccan businesswoman acceptable. With Huppert in the role the disguise becomes less appropriate and more appropriation. Again, not great. Thus, Mama Weed is a film we must interrogate even as we chuckle at its hijinks and nod to its messages of empowerment.

Susan Wloszczyna: It’s a true cinematic sin that for a career that spans five decades and with more than 120 films on her resume, French film legend Isabelle Huppert finally earned her first lead actress Oscar nomination for her darkly clever performance in Paul Verhoven’s 2016 thriller Elle. While her widow and mother of two grown daughters in her latest film Mama Weed doesn’t quite compare with her most audacious roles, at age 68, the sight of the still-glorious Huppert onscreen being as intriguing as ever will give you a contact high that lasts a good long time. Read full review.

Leslie Combemale
Few actors anywhere in the world can carry the level of Boss Energy that Isabelle Huppert has carried during the course of her career. She’s been nominated for 16 César Awards, and is known as one of the best actors of her generation. In Mama Weed, she leverages both her comedic and dramatic acting skills, playing the sort of complex, morally ambiguous characters for which she has become known. Women who watch the film will recognize the struggles that mothers and daughters navigate, the struggles that we always take on in a vacuum. Her character is constantly reframing her situation to see the bright side, and ‘makes it work’. The film itself has many amusing moments, but Huppert anchors it in the challenges all women face who take on the responsibility of caring for both their parents and children, when the men vacate their lives either through fate or by choice.

Sandie Angulo Chen: The inimitable Isabelle Huppert once again gives a memorable, film-carrying performance in Mama Weed, an entertaining caper from French director Jean-Paul Salomé. In this page-to-screen adaptation of the crime thriller La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre, Huppert stars as Patience, a French-Arabic translator for the Paris police, who recognizes a voice while listening to the wiretap of a hash smuggler’s calls and ends up embroiled in a drug enterprise that she’s surprisingly adept at navigating. Huppert, who is used to playing intense characters, also shows her skills at comedy in the movie, which is a real crowd-pleaser. Kudos to Huppert for successfully playing a character 15 years her junior and imbuing Patience with so much depth.

Liz Whittemore Mama Weed is thrilling and incredibly clever. Filled with whipsmart humor and a keen feminist edge, this film has everything and more. As usual, watching Isabelle Huppert is like watching a masterclass in performance. With beautifully curated costumes and some truly memorable cinematic moments, Mama Weed is one of a kind.
 

 
FILM DETAILS:

Title: Mama Weed (La Daronne)

Director: Jean-Paul Salomé

Stars: Isabelle Huppert, Hippolyte Girardot, Farida Ouchani, Liliane Rovère, Iris Bry, Nadja Nguyen

Release Date: July 16, 2021

Running Time: 104 minutes

Language: French with English subtitles

Screenwriter: Jean-Paul Salomé with Antoine Salomé based on Hannelore Cayre’s novel

Distribution Company: Music Box Films

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).