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The fascinating true story of the most lucrative crime in modern French history is transformed into a rather generic gangster flick in Carbon (Carbone), the latest thriller from cop turned policier specialist Olivier Marchal (36th Precinct, A Gang Story).
Inspired by the Carbon Connection scandal of 2008-2009, which involved billions of euros being siphoned from France and other EU countries by a network of fraudsters, this heavy-handed if broadly compelling affair feels like a carbon copy of other movies — whether by Scorsese or DePalma — even if it definitely has its own quirks (such as casting Gerard Depardieu to play a ruthless Jewish business mogul). Marchal’s films have performed well at the French box office, and this one should do the same, although overseas bids may not stretch far beyond Europe.
Bookended by a voiceover that recalls Al Pacino’s fatalistic monologue in Carlito’s Way, the script (by Marchal and Emmanuel Naccache) takes us on a roller coaster ride through the ups and downs of illicit high-end dealmaking, beginning with leading man Antoine Roca (Benoit Magimel) getting shot point blank in front of his home.
Things then flash back to five months earlier, where we see blue-collar boss Antoine struggling to keep his trucking company afloat amid mounting debts, while receiving little help from his wife (Carole Brana) and father-in-law, Aron Goldstein (Depardieu), both of whom take him for a loser. In one of several over-the-top bits of drama, Antoine is insulted by Goldstein during a Friday night family dinner, prompting the former to slam his yarmulke down on the table and shout “Shabbat Shalom!” before storming out.
Looking for a way to make fast cash so that he can save both his business and his dignity, Antoine concocts a plan to steal tax funds distributed by the French government under a burgeoning market involving the trade of CO2 polluting rights. Describing the scheme here would be too complicated, and the film doesn’t necessarily make it crystal-clear, either, but suffice it to say the down-and-out Antoine will soon find himself rolling in euros, not to mention a host of new troubles.
These involve a pair of shady Jewish brothers (Idir Chender, rapper Gringe) and their Don Corleone-like mom (singer Dani), with whom Antoine teams up to enact his massive fraud. Like Antoine, the bros are flashy dressers and party boys who thrive on excess (they wear their Chai necklaces like pieces of bling), indulging in liquor, coke and hefty portions of their mother’s couscous. But they foolishly build an alliance with a vicious Arab gangster (Moussa Maaskri), who bankrolls their fraud but asks for far too much in return. Before long the beatings and bodies begin to pile up, and what could’ve been a highly profitable white-collar crime soon turns blood red.
There’s a lot of ground to cover here, and during its best moments Carbon races ahead with Scorsese-like efficiency, chronicling Antoine’s exploits in the manner of Goodfellas or The Wolf of Wall Street. Indeed, the real story of the Carbon Connection lies somewhere in between those two films, mixing streetwise traders — such as the celebrity playboy Arnaud Mimran — with veritable thugs who came around for their own piece of the pie, resulting in four unsolved murders.
Marchal sticks close to the facts but then overdramatizes them with his own fluff. This includes an ill-fated love story between Antoine and his mistress, Noa (Laura Smet), that ends with the latter being accosted by three stiletto-wearing attackers, who brandish scissors and desecrate her with an Annie Lennox-style haircut. Between those dubious happenings and the verbal bouts of Magimel and Depardieu — reprising the cheese level of their Netflix series, Marseille — the action here is far from subtle, let alone believable, which is unfortunate given that it was based on actual events.
With his oiled hair, indoor sunglasses and world-weary regard, Magimel’s Antoine carries beaucoup baggage around, but that fails to make him either appealing or altogether interesting. Marchal tries to up his hero’s pathos level with some major family drama — he’s fighting Goldstein for custody of his son — as well as a backstory about a working-class dad, yet Antoine only comes across a selfish jerk hoping to get rich or die trying. In a way, you’re sort of happy he gets gunned down — with the film building some suspense around who did it — and he looks rather relieved about it as well. Supporting characters are equally two-dimensional, with a mix of crooked cops, cat-fighting gals, a lawyer in-over-his-head (comic Michael Youn) and several standard-issue hoods with tattoos to match.
In Marchal’s best movies, such as the cop stories 36th Precinct and The Last Deadly Mission, his outre scenarios were held together by a certain verisimilitude about the milieus depicted, as well as a knack for hair-raising, gun-slinging showdowns. If he fails to deliver either of these here, he deserves points for trying to take a case of large-scale tax fraud — basically a huge paper crime — and turn it into an epic tale of one man’s downward spiral. The problem is that the more Marchal embellishes things, the less credible his film ultimately becomes, and by the time Antoine’s story comes full circle, Carbon is mostly running on fumes.
Production companies: Les Films Manuel Munz, EuropaCorp, Nexus Factor, uMedia
Cast: Benoit Magimel, Gerard Depardieu, Gringe, Idir Chender, Laura Smet, Michael Youn, Dani, Patrick Catalifo
Director: Olivier Marchal
Screenwriter: Emmanuel Naccache, Olivier Marchal, in collaboration with and based on an original idea by Ali Hajdi
Producer: Manuel Munz
Directors of photography: Antony Diaz, Berto
Production designers: Bertrand L’Herminier, Arnaud Putman
Costume designer: Agnes Falque
Editors: Julien Perrin, Raphaele Urtin
Composer: Erwann Kermorvant
Casting director: Pascal Beraud
In French, 104 minutes
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