Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

L.627 (France, 1992)

Written by Tavernier and Michel Alexandre. Photography, Alain Choquart. Editing, Ariane Boeglin.

In case you are not aware of it, Bertrand Tavernier is an incredibly talented and original film-maker who stands at the top of the pyramid, not only that of French movies but of films from all nations. He is also a polymath, a voracious reader, a scholar of film including American cinema from its babyhood to now (he is also fluent in English), has a wicked sense of humor, and, andŠ I 'll stop before this begins to sound like paid advertising!

L.627 (France, 1992) is (approximately) the 21st of over 30 movies made by Tavernier, who also scripted most of them. The title is that of a section of the French Code of Public Health. It deals with drugs, their dealers and users, arrests, penalties and such.

In France as well as elsewhere, drugs are a major, ever-spreading problem, and a hot issue. Tavernier's decision to make a film on the subject was spurred on by his thinking that the French Establishment treated this scourge with inefficiency. Tavernier recalls a 1985 meeting with the then Prime Minister, (or was it a Minister? I forget) to whom the filmmaker expressed how aghast he was at the sight of dealers peddling cocaine and heroin right outside schools or in the corridors of the subway. Replied the PM :" I asked you to talk with me about important matters!" This reinforced Tavernier's decision to make L.627.

His aim was to show what French police movies and police series did not show: endless stalkings, endless hours of policemen hiding in frozen or roasting, claustrophobic vehicles, petty details including in the offices, etc. Tavernier spent much time with the police and their activities. His experiences convinced him that it was his civic duty to speak up, even to denounce the awful conditions of the drug squads or police details. By the same token, he would negate the "mythology" of those French cop-movies that ape the older American styles.

Tavernier sought out a most experienced cop, a veteran narcotics investigator, Michel Alexandre. (He is listed as co-writer in the film's credits.)

The two men met through Nils Tavernier, the director's son and an actor (he is also in L.627) who, to play a policeman in Catherine Breillat's "Dirty Like an Angel" (1991) had prepared with Mr. Alexandre as consultant.

Tavernier Senior and detective Michel Alexandre hit it off right away. The director asked the lawman to write down all he could/would about his police experiences, Three months later, the latter delivered to Tavernier some 400 pages of text, including dialog.

Tavernier's search for authenticity also included specific requests to his director of photography. Such as no changing the lighting of real, on-location shots. No cut-away shots of certain types: if a cop follows a suspect, stay on what the cop sees. and don't shift to a closeup of the suspect. No fancy angles or devices of the traditional cop-movies style. And so on.

The film came out in France in September 1992. It was controversial, especially as it pulled no punches vis-ŕ-vis reprehensible aspects of the police as well as the neglect of that body. Yet the picture was found by some to go too easy on the cops.

If L.627 has to have a label, the closest would be "docudrama," but with the stress on "docu" rather than on "drama." There are no bravura pieces, no exaggerations, no grandstanding, no romances. Whatever peripherals exist reinforce the movie. (I will not disclose details here.) There are no camera-friendly beautifications--or colorful uglifications. It all looks and feels very realŠand, seeing that it is a Tavernier opus, it also has its share of humor, natural, sharp and always making valid points.

By the standards of police movies L.627 is not just realistic but super-realistic -- call in naturalistic in terms of literature. I mean by this, the raw depiction of people, places and actions without a smidgen of embellishments or all the many "colorful" or "movie" aspects that are inserted in cop pics or TV series, especially in the American-made ones. Here the structure is organic (and think of how rare this is in movies!)

In fact, even docudramas cannot resist the temptation of inventions which will enhance (?) matters and impress the public.

[A useful study would compare the usual movies, including the best, such as "The French Connection" in the expanded genres, with Tavernier's utter refusal to add filmic come-ons.]

This is a work that unlike anything you have seen. It is set in Greater Paris, both in central and peripheral locations, always depicted in totally anti-romantic fashion. No " oh la la" or "beautiful Paris" here. Grungy, shabby and very real, it makes not a single concession to movie-movie-ism, whether it depicts main streets or mean streets, slums, hovels, police stations that lack materials they need, stations that confine and crowd the cops in miserable offices which can be even smaller than a normal house-trailer yet are packed with people.

In the U.S.A and abroad, for the millions of viewers who are familiar from features and from TV series with American police stations, their means of communication, their computers and other equipment, the offices as well as other relevant spaces in this film look antiquated to say the least, and almost penurious.

In one station the personnel has been waiting in vain for months for carbon paper. (Many younger viewers won't even know what this is.) Even the telephones are not up to date -yet modern ones certainly were common in 1992 France.

Bureaucracy reigns. In some ways, one feels the presence of that famous, ironical French saying: "Pourquoi faire simple quand on peut faire complique? (Translation: Why make it simple when you can make it complicated?)

Other viewers, especially among the sharp-eyed, film-savvy ones, will notice the full-fledged non-artiness in the photography. No fancy angles, no zooms from close-ups to long shots, and so on.

This being a French movie about French cops, there is no dearth of talk, whether shop-talk, professional, personal or combinations thereof. Talk is part and parcel of French culture, the power of dialogue and conversation is ingrained in that country - and without chauvinism I must say that it is one of the beauties of French life. Boring your interlocutor is or ought to be a sin. In fact, even porno movies use talk where their American equivalent uses moans.

A splendid, fascinating film, and even for (or in the context of) France, a one-of-a-kind experience.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel