Paulo was a criminal in the Paris underworld who was well-liked and influential - or so he thought until he was strolling down the street one evening, bottle he had just bought in hand, when someone called out to him from a parked car. He went over, recognised the occupants and greeted them, yet too late noticed the shotgun aimed at his chest which went off, killing him instantly. But who would want him dead? Quite a few people as it turned out, as Paulo was an informer, and once word had gotten out that this was the case, his contact in the police, Palouzi (Richard Berry), realises straight away the man who ordered the hit...
At first with La Balance, which is French for "The Informer", you think the main characters will be the Paris equivalent of the British Flying Squad as immortalised in the classic seventies television show The Sweeney, and if you had heard how writer and director Bob Swaim had spent an entire year researching this section of the force for his breakthrough movie, you would have every right to believe that. However, it was as if he knew he could have made yet another cop thriller of which there were countless from Europe, yet found himself distracted part of the way in by a couple of criminals who became strangely compelling.
They were a pimp, Dédé, and his prostitute, Nicole, played by a real life romantic couple of actors who had recently split up. That both went on to win the César for best actor and actress for their work here should indicate something of the all-too convincing chemistry as a pair who had lived together for some time and were comfortable with one another. Philippe Léotard played him, and Nathalie Baye played her, the former a notorious hellraiser, or at least a serious drug and alcohol addict, so not a million miles away from the dissolute character he was essaying, and the latter a respected performer who was best known for playing the "nice girl", making this a quite departure for her.
Although plotwise it was the simple enough tale of that couple being persuaded to turn against a gangster (Maurice Ronet) who is ruling the underworld by informing on him, Léotard and Baye offered it a real charge whenever they were on the screen. Berry and the other actors as the cops were behaving in a "Who are the actual bad guys here?" fashion familiar from many a gritty police thriller, so Swaim could have fallen back on various clichés to get his story told, but those lawmen are such an unlikeable bunch that a curious thing happens: you start to feel truly sorry for Dédé and Nicole, in spite of them apparently not holding many sympathetic qualities. They become so isolated in this plot that it's difficult not to feel your heart go out to them.
And that was even when they were less than admirable, as for example he hits her in a fit of frustration, then admits he was wrong - he'd never done it before, and we can see he's so shocked he'll never do it again. Nicole stands by her man, and if she has fallen in with a bad crowd it's soon her and Dédé against the world as they are threatened by the cops until each give in to their demands to protect the other. You could, if you chose to dismiss the more obvious thriller aspects of La Balance, see it as an off-kilter love story as while it was as tough as any in its genre, the small, sad, taken advantage of relationship at its heart was as touching as any in the more blatant romantic movies which this was never going to be mentioned in the same breath as. Meanwhile, we watch Palouzi and his team bend the rules to get their man, thinking nothing of beating up suspects and going to the extremes that occur by the finale. This became not only a hit in France but across the world, mainly in arthouse cinemas but a hit nonetheless, and that was testament to Swaim's intelligent casting. Music by Roland Bocquet.