With a body of work that rivals any performer’s across the history of film, French actress Isabelle Huppert can swan in and out of challenging material with nary a scratch to her matchless reputation. Often, her cool intensity and versatility is what makes that material work, most recently exemplified in her Oscar-nominated turn in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle.” But sometimes you get what amounts to a perfect fit of risk and skill, leading to sheer delight. That’s the case with the fleet French crime comedy “La Daronne,” translated with a winking nudge into colloquial English, and toward its particular narrative, as “Mama Weed.”
No, Huppert is not on the toking end in director Jean-Paul Salomé’s film (not that she couldn’t rock a pot comedy), but rather the dealing side. Huppert plays Patience Portefeux, a widow with money problems and a mother (Liliane Rovere, “Call My Agent!”) with dementia in an expensive assisted home, who taps into a newfound sense of purpose and excitement when she takes over the selling of a massive amount of hashish.
The swerve is smoother than one would think, however, for Patience: By day, she works for the Paris police’s drug squad as an Arabic translator, eavesdropping all day on wiretaps of suspected dealers when she’s not in the middle of direct confrontations during arrests or interrogations.
What makes “Mama Weed” (which Salomé and lawyer-turned-writer Hannelore Cayre adapted from the latter’s novel “The Godmother”) more than just a switch-up lark about the thrill of dabbling in criminality is Patience’s other motivation: abiding sympathy for young, careless North African immigrants whose illegal activities are the surest way of getting swept up in a lopsided justice system all too eager to stamp out their futures and break their families. (It’s also suggested that both Patience’s materialist parents and the late Omani husband she loved were familiar with breaking the law.)
At work, Patience is teased by her lover Philippe — the newly promoted drug squad chief appealingly played by Hippolyte Girardot — for having a liberal’s soft spot for the often hapless small-timers yammering about their lives on her headset. But she’s quick to crack back that the only thing that tossing someone in jail for possession does is radicalize them.
One day, as Patience is monitoring a young Moroccan man’s cell phone as he’s driving a hash shipment into the country, she realizes the worried mom he’s talking to is her own mother’s best caregiver, Khadija (Farida Ouchani). Spurred to protect him, she sets in motion a diversion that ultimately — with the unwitting assistance of her employer’s K-9 unit — puts the huge stash in her hands.
With both a violent gang of stiffed buyers and her befuddled colleagues on the force wondering where the hash suddenly went, Patience devises a persona to move the product: Mama Weed, a wealthy Moroccan matriarch in designer-print hijabs, oversized sunglasses, freckle-hiding foundation and vibrant lipstick. With her occupational knowledge of how drugs get into the hands of consumers — and who in the chain could most use the boost — she zeroes in on a pair of eager, easily cowed street-level dealers named Scotch (Rachid Guellaz) and Cocoa Puff (Mourad Boudaoud), becoming their tough, fair, glamorous, strangely knowledgeable and even occasionally maternal supply source.
Since Huppert is one of cinema’s great portraitists of casually empowering deviance, it’s not surprising that watching her subvert the law for late-in-life pleasure is its own ticklish reward in “Mama Weed,” with fantasy and feminism playfully interlaced. (That junction includes the character of wary/wise Chinese immigrant landlord Mrs. Fo, played by Jade Nadja Nguyen, who helps her formerly in-arrears tenant launder her sudden windfall.)
But the picture also benefits from Salomé’s and editor Valérie Deseine’s crisp handling of tone and incident, so that what’s amusing draws the right wry smile, what’s pointed about the world today carries a sting and what’s perilous has the crackle of a gray-shaded policier. In its breezy mix of star wattage, moral wiggliness and genre smarts, one could imagine this being the kind of material that would have attracted both Billy Wilder and Claude Chabrol. Thankfully, it lured Isabelle Huppert, which is all that matters, and Salomé knows it.
As with a lot of heightened crime capers, wrapping up the story’s strands (from staying ahead of her paramour to, you know, not getting killed) proves to be a struggle for “Mama Weed.” But not in the character department, where the solution for how to say goodbye to a woman in a complicated situation is to ignore logistics and rely instead on the strength of Huppert’s special blend of intelligence, poise, and melancholy in the right location — in this case, a charming sendoff that’s a Huppert-ized glide into the sunset. Because as “Mama Weed” makes deliciously apparent, where its iconic star goes, we will gladly follow.
“Mama Weed” opens July 16 in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and elsewhere, and premieres on-demand July 23.