La Balance

balanceThe French seem to love American police thrillers almost as much as Americans do, and they regularly make movies that imitate the hard-hitting American style.

The gritty, roughhouse French thriller La Balance, however, does not really have to imitate an American style—because the writer-director is himself an American. He’s an expatriate named Bob Swaim, and his movie is lively, violent, and something of a mess.

The first part of the film is seen mainly from the viewpoint of the cops—especially the police captain (Richard Berry) who wants to sting the city’s underworld kingpin (Maurice Ronet). To do that, he’s got to find some informers who will help set the crime czar up for a fall.

He finds a prostitute (Nathalie Baye) and her pimp (Philippe Leotard) and bullies them into setting up the sting. Soon, our sympathies are with Baye and Leotard; the twist here is that the genuinely love each other, and are blackmailed into helping the police.

There is still a tattered honor about these unlikely heroes, which is a far cry from the belligerent, amoral police. Even the jaded captain is impressed—and although he reneges on initial promises to the couple, he may be stating to like them.

The world of La Balance is a world of betrayal, on various levels: in love, in crime, in business. Swaim conjures a convincingly ratty Paris underworld in which to set this tale of shifting loyalties, and the ugly cinematography adds to this.

The film has a lot of ideas floating around, and most of them don’t quite come together. The air of confusion may be appropriate for the sense of moral ambiguity that Swaim clearly wants to communicate, but it makes a cop thriller considerably less streamlined.

But the story works well enough, in large part thanks to an appealing cast: Baye is fine as the prostitute, and Berry does well in the tough part of the unshaven, world-weary detective. There’s probably no actor around who looks less like his name than Philippe Leotard; his boxer’s face gives him a streetwise authenticity, but he also carries an odd nobility.

And La Balance itself has an authenticity, possibly due to the Gallic setting being filtered through an American mind, and seen afresh. Whatever the reason, it turns out to be a truly French French Connection.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1984

Swaim got a Hollywood stint out of this, doing the awkward Half Moon Street and the better Masquerade. This was a good period for Nathalie Baye, a delicate-looking actress with a distinct gravity.

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