An official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, The Stronghold (BAC Nord in the original French) is a gritty ‘cops and drug dealers’ film that pulls no punches in its message. But for it to have been a must-watch, it needed more to offer. Three seasoned Marseille policemen (the closest of friends) comb the notorious northern quarter of the city to prevent the drug menace from proliferating. There’s Greg Cerva (Gilles Lellouche), the group’s de facto leader, and by the looks of it, the most experienced and hardened of the trio. Antoine (François Civil) is the official hothead; in tricky situations, his temperamental behaviour (pulling out his gun, pushing and shoving at the slightest instance, using his fists etc.) puts their entire strategy in jeopardy. The third member of this tight ship is Yass – the person with the most to lose. He has a partner (also a policewoman) with whom he is expecting a child.
The first half of the film tends to be ambiguous on the subject of what the cops are up to in the name of justice. They’re not crooked, but their brand of patrolling (interrogation by intimidatory means, violence, and sometimes unnecessary arrests) settles in a grey area. There are scenes (involving the trio and the drug dealers) in which you are unsure as to who belongs on which side of the law. There is no clear distinction made between the good and the bad. This ambiguity, especially of their questionable methods with regard to suspects, is the best point the film drives home. The complex demands of such a job are understandable. The inevitable need to use force in several situations is a given. Under the prevailing conditions, nothing is exactly clear-cut. Right and wrong cease to be entities one gravitates to for comfort. One has to, as beat cops covering the roughest of drug neighbourhoods, be a certain way to be effective. This is another message the film excels in putting forth.
However, it is disappointing that the story follows a predictable trajectory. The initial euphoria of a major drug bust, its subsequent repercussions (all hidden from view), and the ultimate betrayal, had to happen, didn’t it? How could it have gone down any other way? Implicated for collecting drugs on the job and re-selling them, the trio faces serious jail time. They are innocent of the charge, of course, but the police chief who oversaw the case fails to back them up. Greg takes the betrayal too hard, unable to come to terms with the level of manipulation. The complex operation (involving a mini-war between the northern neighbourhood and the Marseille Police) comes to pass when Antoine’s confidential informant, Amel (Kenza Fortas), makes a revelation about the arrival of a huge consignment of drugs. In all of this, Antoine is pressured to give up the name of his source in exchange for their release – first from law enforcement and later from Yass (unable to see Greg flagging mentally and psychologically in solitary confinement). His searing guilt is palpable! Even the parts concerning Yass, Nora, and their infant and the sticky situation they find themselves in, are painful to watch. Seeing Nora beg Yass’s colleagues to reveal the truth (they are willing to help up to a point, but not in ways that implicate the department) is particularly hard.
The events transpiring in The Stronghold are portrayed in a realistic and dark manner. The grey-black tone utilised throughout the film succeeds in reinforcing its gritty feel. But it doesn’t tell you anything new about an oft-recounted tale. Equally effective efforts of the past have said as much. So, how exactly does it distinguish itself? From its characters, I would imagine? The three central policemen of the story share a complicated love-hate friendship brought on by years together in a tough profession. One minute they are making jokes about each other in the car, and the next, they are in fisticuffs over a drug search gone wrong. Engaging as the characters of Greg, Antoine, and Yass are every so often, I had this nagging feeling of having seen their personality replicas before. BAC Nord is shot well – the action sequences, specifically – and with a brand of realism that drives home a point. For all intents and purposes, the film does a fair job. A dose of originality may have made it more watchable.
Also read: La Proie d’une Ombre Streaming