So, I'll get this out of the way now -- Mama Weed by Jean-Paul Salomé is as politically incorrect a film as you can bear to watch. But it is also one of the funniest, most charming, most beautiful looking works of the seventh art being released this summer and in my humble opinion, a film that cannot be missed.
The premise is simple enough: Patience Portefeux (played by the magnificent, ever-elegant Isabelle Huppert) is a translator for the Paris police by day, looking in on her aging mother in the evenings. She is months behind on her bills, so when she finds herself in possession of a huge quantity of hash and with the insider's knowledge required to move it, Patience capitalizes on her field of experience to earn extra income, while staying one step ahead of her colleagues at the precinct. There is a Chinese neighbor/landlady and Patience's police boss boyfriend to add in the mix, which only makes the story more juicy.
Paris also plays a prominent role in the story and the perfect portrayal of the city's multiethnic cohabitation and collaboration is probably the reason I ended up loving Mama Weed so much.
The film is based on The Godmother ["La daronne"] the acclaimed novel by Hannelore Cayre, and was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay César Award.
What makes the film at once a fantastic watch but also this politically incorrect guilty pleasure is that Patience begins donning a hijab and a djellaba to become her alter ego, the drug dealing Daronne -- "Mama Weed" of the US title. She loves the look so much that her combinations are the stuff a fashionista's dreams are made of and by the end of Mama Weed I was left craving a visit to my local Muslim neighborhood for a scarf hunting expedition.
When asked what made him want to turn the book into a film, Salomé said: "I really liked the novel, especially its tone, and the blend of comedy and thriller. Above all, I saw in it the possibility of a lovely portrait of a woman, and a great role for Isabelle Huppert. I imagined the contrast between her and her somewhat frail stature, and this tough man’s world of cops and dealers who drive Porsche Cayennes, and the irreverent way she treats them. But nothing would have happened without a fortunate set of circumstances. In the summer of 2017, I left Unifrance, where I had been president for more than four years. In my last months there, I travelled a lot with Isabelle Huppert, who was promoting Elle by Paul Verhoeven all over the world. We got along well. At the end of these trips, I told her I’d really like to work with her. “Oh yes, a comedy would be great!” Isabelle replied. Meanwhile, Marc Irmer, who produced the2009 film Legal Aid, directed by Hannelore Cayre, had thought of me to adapt La Daronne. I was sent the book, which I loved. I met Hannelore. Other directors were sniffing around, but she told me they were more interested in the thriller aspect and wanted to play down the comedy. I told her I was interested in the balance between the genres, which seemed to please her. I told her about Huppert, she only half-believed me. In an amazing coincidence, when I called Isabelle, who was arriving at her holiday destination, she told me she’d bought the book at the airport, read it on the plane, and really liked it. On condition that she liked the script, we were on! Hannelore wanted to participate in thea daptation, so we got down to writing. "
Huppert also talked about discovering the novel: "I came across the novel by chance when I heard the author, Hannelore Cayre, on the France Culture radio station. She was talkinga bout her book, just before receiving the Grand Prix for crime literature 2017, I think. I was struck by what she said, so I dashed out to buy the book, which I thought was terrific. It contained the portrait of a woman, and the promise of destiny. I don’t necessarily seek out roles in books, I do sometimes read for pleasure! But with Mama Weed, I had sensed from what the author said about it that there was an interesting central character. And the material for a film which is not entirely sacrificed to the codes of genres, whether thriller or comedy. Jean-Paul Salomé, with whom I have traveled a lot for Unifrance events, told me he was interested in the book, and then later that he’d bought the rights. We had nearly worked together once a long time ago, so this was the opportunity to put that right."
Salomé talked about how Huppert prepared for the shoot: "She doesn’t speak Arabic, so she had to learn her lines phonetically. That’s when having a hard worker like her becomes very useful. We started shooting in November 2018. By summer, she already had all her lines recorded in several different ways, spoken by a man, by a woman, at normal speed, slowed down. She learned it syllable by syllable, intonation by intonation. I was naturally anxious. She told me it was hard. Her coach, who worked with us right up to the shoot, reassured me. Isabelle went off to shoot Frankie in Portugal, I think she was learning our lines between takes, whenever she had a moment. When the time came, she knew it all by heart. It was amazing. If it had been disaster, we could have dubbed, even partially. But there was no need. We had Moroccans listen to her lines, and they said she spoke well, with a slight French accent. Marité Coutard produced her wardrobe, making her a rich matriarch who lords it over the little dealers when she arranges to meet them in a luxury hotel, or a more modest mother, when she passes on the merchandise in a suburban convenience store.
And then Huppert explained about learning Arabic but also the clothes, which are so important to the viewer -- and the actress: "Understanding and speaking Arabic is part of the character, it’s even what triggers the narrative. It was a fun challenge, but very difficult. The same year, I had to speak some Chinese in Luz by Flora Lau, and a lot of Arabic in Mama Weed. For languages that are quite close to ours, it’s fairly simple, but Chinese and Arabic have lots of sounds that we struggle to reproduce. It’s just part of the job. I got down to it a few months in advance, I hope I speak it well enough. To begin with, I only understood the overall meaning of a sentence. Gradually, I managed to understand which word or group of words corresponded to what meaning. But the music of the language is so important that in a way, not understanding anything didn’t matter. I concentrated on reproducing that music as best I could. It’s never separate from the rest: I speak Arabic disguised as an Arab woman, sometimes a very rich Arab woman, sometimes a poorer woman. I really like the costume that the Daronne wears in the convenience store, I think it’s very authentic. When her dress becomes more sparkling, it’s more of a disguise. It was all a lot of fun: I couldn’t separate the language from the dressing up."
Mama Weed opens in theaters in NYC, LA, Chicago and other cities on July 16 with a VOD release to follow on July 23rd.
Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films are distributing the film.