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Undercover (Enquete Sur Un Scandale d’Etat)

An informant turns against his narcotics officer, in French dialogue-intensive political thriller questioning the ethics of the "war on drugs" - live from the San Sebastian International Film Festival


Up to 1,000 tons of of marijuana are smuggled into France a year, mostly from North Africa and via Spain. Jacques Billard (Vincent Lindon) is the head of the Central Narcotics Centre of France, and he seizes nothing but a small fraction of the drug in a given year in of the 2010s: 137 tons. He explains that his organisation does not tend to intercept drugs at the frontier. Instead it maps the delivery routes and confiscates the narcotics at a much later stage.

Dark-skinned, Arab-born Hubert Anthoine (Roschdy Zem) works for Billard as an undercover informant, but one day he decides to blow the whistle. He denounces that his former boss is voluntarily allowing drugs into the country, and is a willing participant of the gigantic drug trafficking scheme. The two men couldn’t be more different: Billard is well-spoke and calm, while Hubert is explosive and unpredictable.

Billard argues that Hubert is disgruntled because he isn’t getting enough commissions. Hubert is indeed experiencing a hurricane of emotions: he has a fast-growing cancer and has just proposed to his young and beautiful girlfriend. A writer for the newspaper Liberation engages with Hubert in the hope to score a journalistic scoop. Newspapers editors, lawyers and judges also become involved in this duel. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi plays a small yet remarkable part as an infuriated prosecutor grilling Billard.

Despite opening the warning: “this film is inspired on a novel, and the events and characters are fictional”, Undercover strives for realism. There are numerous references to existing politicians and organisations, including the ETA and the GAL death squads. French president Francois Hollande is briefly featured. The newspaper Liberation and Le Monde are very much real. Intertitles explain the fate of the characters as if they were very real people.

The problem is that the characters lack the depth that a fictionalised story requires. French director Thierry de Peretti opts to focus on the intense dialogue instead rather than the emotions of the protagonists. The testosterone-fuelled conversations are incessant. The network of intrigues is extremely complex. The flurry of information is unrelenting. Except for a short cabaret sequence, there are no more than 30 seconds of uninterrupted silence in thus 110-minute movie. An intense crime drama almost instantly morphs into a courtroom drama. There is no respite. There are no subtleties. No time for digestion, no time for reflection. Exhausting.

There is also one thematic shortcoming. Despite recognising that we have been losing the war on drugs for more than 40 years, Undercover never questions its banality. Instead it focuses almost entirely on the effectiveness and reliability of the government bodies combating the drug trade. It never addresses the legalisation of marijuana and its potential benefits. A missed opportunity to make a poignant argument.

Undercover is showing in Competition at the 69th San Sebastian International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 23-09-2021

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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