Before seeing this movie, Judge Dan Mancini didn't know that the French idolized Sonny Crockett.
"The biggest mistake I ever made was falling for a whore."—Dédé Laffont
Director Bob Swaim's La Balance is set in a true-to-life heroin crimewave in Paris in the 1980s. Special police units called Territorial Brigades utilize a network of informants to infiltrate the underworld and capture criminals. As the film begins, an informant named Paulo is gunned down in the streets, and cop Mathias Palouzi (Richard Berry, A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later) believes a Belleville crime boss named Massina was behind the slaying. He sets his sights on turning Dédé Laffont (Philippe Léotard, The Day of the Jackal), a former Massina underling, into an informant in order to nab the murderer. Laffont is fresh out of jail and making ends meet by pimping his girlfriend Nicole Danet (Nathalie Baye, Catch Me If You Can), whose sexual allure is somehow at the center of Laffont's jail time and alienation from Massina. Dédé has no interest in ratting out his old boss, though, so Palouzi plays Nicole and Dédé off of each other in order to make his bust, threatening the lovers' already fragile relationship.
La Balance is a tepid crime movie, but the relationship between Nicole and Laffont is engaging. Philippe Léotard's lanky build, rubbery posture, and hooded eyes make him an ideal passive hero and foster in us a greater affinity for the more active Nicole. Nathalie Baye, then, becomes the film's true hero, and her performance is excellent. As Laffont responds to police pressure with reckless intransigence, the story becomes more and more about Detective Palouzi's manipulation of Nicole's female instincts. The prostitute's struggle to find a reasonable balance between self-preservation and protecting the boyish Laffont, whom she loves, is surprisingly tragic and compelling in the midst of what is ostensibly a genre piece. Baye's innate charm has much to with the picture's successes.
Unfortunately, the troubled romance fights the crime genre's demanding pace, and the film drags in spots. The story's turning point is Dédé's involvement in an 80-million franc heist, but the crime is as limp and free of kinetic energy as Laffont himself (we're supposed to wonder whether he's out to fool the cops, his old chums, or both, but it's hard to care). The narrative demands of Nicole and Dédé's personal struggles prevent Swaim from clearly establishing the logistics of the heist for his audience. There's little sense of danger about it, and it's paid off with a contrived climactic bust set piece. It also comes off as an annoying distraction from the far more fascinating interactions among the characters—this is a film whose most exciting moments are comprised of actors in verbal sparring matches. And the rich cast of characters—the Parisian crimewave in which La Balance is set involved all manner of Eastern block and Middle Eastern immigrants—provides plenty of wonderful acting moments, as well as selling the Parisian streets as a complex and insular world of vices and evil intent. It becomes obvious by the end, though, that Swaim doesn't want to be bothered with constructing a plausible heist; the crime is just a mechanism via which he can put the screws to Nicole and Dédé, increasing the stakes of their romance. But placing well-drawn characters in a half-assed plot makes the whole house of cards shaky. This is La Balance's greatest fault. If you can look past the gaping plot holes, though, you'll find an entertaining, well-acted relationship-in-crisis picture set in a web of shady characters.
The solarized opening credits sequence and slap-bass title song—made even more annoying by the singer's cabaret-style vocal delivery—scream from the get-go that the picture is a product of the 1980s. Once into the meat of the story, it feels like a Parisian episode of Miami Vice, directed by William Friedkin (The French Connection). Despite the gritty crime milieu, cotton blazers, pastel T-shirts, leather mini-skirts, and poofy hair abound. The specificity of the real-life '80s crimewave saves the movie from feeling all that dated, though. The fashions and music look and sound the way they ought to. And all that glorious '80s bad taste is captured on DVD in a transfer lives up to Home Vision's high standards. Colors are fully saturated, and the image is appropriately gritty without excessive grain. Edge enhancement is minimal, and dirt and damage is almost non-existent. The film's original 1.66:1 aspect ratio is maintained—anamorphically enhanced—as is the original mono sound. Given a two-channel presentation, the audio is free of distortion and offers excellent dynamic range considering the source limitations.
As supplements to the feature, HVE offers a theatrical trailer, and an insert booklet that contains a Bob Swaim filmography and a brief essay by film critic Richard Maynard.
La Balance isn't a complete success, but the well-scripted relationship between Nathalie Baye and Philippe Léotard, as well as the strong performances of both, make it worth a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
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