La Balance (1982) is American Ex-Pat director Bob Swaim's gritty policier set during a real-life crime wave that swept through Paris. The film earned several Cesar awards (French equivalent of the Oscar) for its unflinching and often violent portrayl of life in the Belleville district of Paris, which at the time was home to a steady stream of third-world thugs, dealers and scam artists. Taking its name from the system of informants that the French police use to gather their tips, La Balance focuses on small-time pimp, Dede (Philippe Leotard), and his prostitute/lover, Nicole (Nathalie Baye), as they are caught between the cops and a crime lord for control of the streets.
La Balance opens with the brutal slaying of a "Balance" and the frustration and desperation of the police to secure a new one. The murder was ordered by crime boss Massina, who is so paranoid that he never uses a phone or even writes anything down, making the "Balance" critical to help bring him to justice. Dede worked for Massina years ago, but was kicked out of his gang due to an incident between Massina and Nicole. Reduced to being a pimp and a scam artist, the police decide that Dede's past with Massina is to their advantage. Using a law on the books in France that makes it illegal for a prostitute (who are licensed by the French Government) to live with a man, the cops confront Dede with this knowledge, and in turn threaten Nicole with sending Dede to prison. The cops use different methods to pressure both of the couple, unbeknownst to one another.
The cops are no slouches either. Led by Mathias (Richard Berry), who is "Dirty Harry" by way of Al Pacino, they scour the underworld for anyone and anything they can get their hands on that would implicate Massina and let them put him away. They take special delight in pumping various prostitutes for information, and then "pumping" them again when they're off-duty. To further emphasize the police officer's desperation, their use of violence is frequent, but is not depicted in a way that would be considered anything but realistic. Some of the fights and car chases seem poorly executed when compared to the ultra-stylized and choreographed scenes in most movies today. That is until the scene is over and the blood is flowing, hitting you in the gut with the kind of visceral punch that stylized violence often fails to achieve.
Even with Mathias and Massina's cat and mouse game, the heart of La Balance lies in the deep but tragic relationship between Dede and Nicole. Dede appears throughout most of the film as a sad sack and a loser. Being kicked out of the gang has left him a marked man, but in order to set things right he begins to ingratiate himself again with Massina and provide information to the police. Nicole, on the other hand, is not intimidated by either Massina or Mathias and only decides to help Mathias due to her love for, and loyalty to, Dede. There are no black-and-whites in La Balance, as everyone seems to have their own best interest in mind. Even Mathias, who is just "doing his job" pressuring Nicole, seems to be falling for her. This raises the question, is he really using Dede and Nicole to get to Massina, or does he have an ulterior motive with Nicloe in mind?
Picture: The movie is presented in a widescreen 1.66:1 aspect ratio. A new print was struck for this DVD and the image quality of this print is as good as when it was first screened.
Audio: There is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track, which sounds fine, although my French is a bit rusty.
Extras: Included as Extras on this DVD are the American Theatrical Trailer, which is horribly dubbed into English and an insert with Liner Notes by Film Producer/Writer, Richard Maynard.
Conclusion: La Balance, like the best crime movies, is all about the characters. The very act of bringing down the crime lord, Massina, becomes secondary to the intricate character studies of the lovers, Dede and Nicole, and their manipulation by the equally fascinating Mathias. Swain makes sure to keep things moving at a brisk pace, always showing us another deal, another bust, another scam, another trick, painting a dark and realistic portrait of the seedy Belleville. A solid movie, combined with an equally solid presentation definitely make this recommended viewing.