Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The French crime thriller moved into the 1980s with Bob Swaim's slick policier about
the violent give-and-take of crime on the streets of Paris. Laced with wailing pop songs and
fast action, it's a standard take on underworld angst, but with a compelling love story
thrown in as well. Nathalie Baye and Philippe Léotard are excellent, and the general excitement
helps us get past more than a few clichéd moments.
The heat is on in the Belleville district, where the murder of Paulo, a stoolie (Sam
Karmann) has left the cops in the dark. Forced to use dirty means to re-establish some control over
crime kingpin Roger Massina (Maurice Ronet), cop Mathias Palouzi (Richard Berry) puts the squeeze
on streetwalker Nicole Danet (Nathalie Baye) and her pimp Dédé Laffont (Philippe
Léotard) to become informers. Both have suffered because of Massina yet prove to be reluctant
snitches. When Laffont finally fingers Massina on a high art theft, the bust turns into a
bloodbath on the streets of Paris.
In the 1970s, French director Jean-Pierre Melville's final crime films became increasingly
stylized, while American William Friedkin initiated a new docudrama trend with his The French
Connection. If Michael Mann's work is a continuation of the Melville line, Bob Swain's La
Balance aspires to be a commercially-conscious heir to Friedkin's approach. Cops swagger down
sidewalks and cruise the boulevards in dark glasses, joking among themselves while taking
barely-legal action against their underworld enemies. Because the mob boss Massina never uses the
telephone or writes anything down, informers are their only hope; and when no stoolie offers his
services, the police use pressure and blackmail to create one. Hardboiled crime fans will
probably find the movie slightly idealized, as the cops stretch the law only in extreme circumstances
and heightened emotions get the better of both crooks and coppers alike.
La Balance has some outstanding features. The multicultural swirl of Belleville is captured
in Parisian streets swarming with Algerians, Arabs and Eastern European immigrant criminals with
names like Petrovic, Djerbi and Sanchez. Ethnic slurs comprise a lot of the dialogue, with the cops
making jokes about Cous-cous eaters and an Israeli cafe owner telling squad leader Palouzi where to
get off. Crime in Paris is presented partially as a race problem, giving La Balance the
reactionary edge of Brian De Palma's Scarface.
Prostitution is also starkly portrayed, with the sidewalk girls soliciting sex in all manner of
kinky costumes. The vice trade serves as the intersection between cops and crooks - the pimps and
hookers can be seen as plying a semi-honest trade, while the policemen use them for information
as well as sex.
At the center is a good love story. Nathalie Baye's Nicole and Philippe Léotard's Laffont
are truly devoted to one another and stay loyal through an ordeal of police humiliation. The brazen
Nicole seems impervious to pressure and has no problem physically assaulting Palouzi
when she loses her patience. Laffont has a permanently sorrowful expression (thanks to Léotard's
distinctive eyebrows) and tries his best to avoid disaster. Their relationship holds the picture
together, but the script softens Nicole by never showing her with a client.
La Balance starts with neon-colored titles alternating with a disco beat and wants to be
as visually hip as possible, yet at heart it's an old-fashioned cop story. The streets of the city
are the 80s equivalent of Melville or Jacques Becker's dark 50s crime mellers. Director Swaim reaches
for irony by covering the walls of police headquarters with French movie posters for Clint Eastwood
movies and other violent American fare including La Horde Sauvage ( = The Wild
Bunch). The main action setpiece, when a theft ring takedown turns into a shootout among helpless
civilians, is practically an homage to Sam Peckinpah. The cops are afraid to fire while the main
psycho triggerman (Tchéky Karyo of The Bear) blasts away with high-caliber sidearms
he probably first saw in Dirty Harry. The retaliation by the police captain (Bernard Freyd)
condones the Harry Callahan method of dealing with murderous criminals.
The script has a tendency to overuse exposition to make sure the audience follows the simple story.
There are also some moments that seem less than inspired, such as when Laffont throws himself into
a gutter in despair while Nicole attempts to console him. Otherwise La Balance is an engrossing
and rewarding crime thriller in the French mode.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of La Balance is beautifully mastered with an enhanced image
that makes the 1982 movie look brand new. The mono audio track showcases some catchy French
pop songs. Richard Maynard provides illuminating liner notes. The only extra is an American trailer
with horrible dubbing that gives the Parisians comical American accents and destroys the film
completely. No wonder the film attracted little attention over here; in France it swept the equivalent
of our Oscars.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
La Balance rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 25, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson