Tell me if this brief synopsis grabs you: Isabelle Huppert plays a meager police interpreter who seizes an opportunity that transforms her into one of the biggest dope suppliers in Paris. Sounds wacky, right? Yet that’s all I needed to be onboard with “Mama Weed”, an upcoming film with a title that really says it all. It’s such a peculiar match of actress and story. At the same time I don’t know how any fan of the ever reliable Huppert couldn’t be intrigued.
“Mama Weed” is an adaptation of Hannelore Cayre’s 2019 crime novel “The Godmother”. It’s directed by French filmmaker Jean-Paul Salomé who clearly understands what he has in Huppert. He leans on the veteran actress and wisely lets her carry the bulk of load. And as she usually does, the Oscar-nominated Huppert (one of most effortlessly natural actresses in the business) slides into her role and gives a thoroughly entertaining performance; one that manages to make this amusingly eccentric story believable.
Huppert plays Patience Portefeux, a French-Arabic translator who oversees phone surveillance for the Paris Police Department’s narcotics division. The demanding workload has her monitoring tapped phone lines both at the precinct and at home, yet she barely gets paid enough to scrap by. Patience already owes her steely landlord Colette (Nadja Nguyen) two months of back rent and the €3200 a month nursing home is ready to send her ailing mother (Liliane Rovère) to a cheaper facility if she doesn’t catch up on her payments.
While listening in on some Moroccan traffickers Patience learns that one of their drivers is the son of her mother’s favorite nurse Kadidja (Farida Ouchani). Instead of passing the intel to the cops, a sympathetic Patience tips off Kadidja who then warns her son just in time for him to ditch his truckload of hashish before the police bust him. It’s here that Salomé goes full “Breaking Bad” meets “Jackie Brown”. With the help of the police’s resources and her newly adopted drug-sniffing dog, Patience tracks down the hidden hash and secretly moves it to the storage room in her apartment building. She then decks out like Arab royalty, dupes two low-rung pushers (Rachid Guellaz and Mourad Boudaoud) into moving her product, and just like that she has her own lucrative trafficking network.
Now if Patience’s sudden turn to crime sounds a little abrupt and out-of-the-blue, the movie (mostly) has it covered. There is a passing mention of her late husband being involved in some kind of criminal racket. And when she was a child her parents did some things “that a cop wouldn’t have approved of” just to put food on the table. So you could say crime is in her blood. Are a few lines of dialogue enough to setup such a dramatic change in her character? Maybe not, yet the movie has a sly way of getting you to look past it.
The funniest part of it all is how believable Huppert makes it. Middle-aged and unassuming – her character is hardly the person you would expect to become a drug kingpin. And she uses that to her advantage, along with her insider connections and her lukewarm ‘romance’ with the police chief Philippe (Hippolyte Girardot), to constantly stay one step ahead of the cops. She’s also a woman pushing back on the hand she’s been dealt, not quite as full of confidence as she leads on, but bold enough to literally risk everything for some degree of independence.
While undeniably catchy, the movie’s American title “Mama Weed” isn’t the most accurate (Patience is actually pushing hash, not weed and I learned there is a difference). It’s French title “La daronne”, translated “The Mom”, is much more fitting. It more directly speaks to the demure and unsuspecting presence that Patience utilizes to great effect. And Huppert is the perfect actress to pull it off. Mixed with Salomé’s light but engaging touch, she gives the movie a firm anchor and provides us with a character who is easy to latch onto. “Mama Weed” opens in select theaters this Friday (July 16th).