Elderly cattle farmer Auguste Maroilleur (Jean Gabin) presides over his family and their country estate near the Baie de la Seine swamps. He maintains an iron grip on both. One day Maroilleur discovers his grandson Henri (Marc Porel) is involved in drug trafficking and angrily dumps a stash of heroin hidden on the farm. When Henri's partner, a mobster from the city, comes sniffing around for his drugs and threatens the family, the old man brutally disposes of him too and hides the body on his land. However the dead man’s vengeful brother soon follows with a pack of ruthless mobsters bringing more trouble to Maroilleur's door. Luckily Maroilleur proves as tough and resourceful as he is obstinate.
Rural thrillers became very popular in France in the early Seventies. In these films the bucolic countryside once eulogized by playwright and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol took on a more melancholy autumnal hue reflecting the pessimism and uncertainty of the times. What is more their cast of lively rural archetypes, portrayed in Pagnol's films as the very heart and soul of France, were now rendered haunted, desperate characters struggling on its fringes. Based on a novel by Georges Godefroy, La Horse is not quite as despairing and fatalistic as director Pierre Granier-Deferre's subsequent The Widow Couderc (1974). In fact it rides the line between gloomy lament and strident, semi-reactionary tract endorsing traditional values. With cinematographer Walter Wottitz supplying a murky colour palette La Horse spotlights the iconic Jean Gabin, then France's greatest living actor. Haggard and grey yet resolute throughout, his hero Maroilleur is the epitome of a strong rural patriarch as he weans his troublesome grandson off drugs (in real life cult actor Marc Porel never kicked the heroin habit that would sadly claim his life), sees off the mob and basically lays down the law.
Right from early scenes we sense that Maroilleur's clan resent the old man controlling every aspect of their lives but the film never really develops this. At a point in time when culture in general was set on questioning authority, La Horse curiously neither questions nor challenges Maroilleur's moral stance and actions. But then why would you when they are presented as ruthlessly effective. What tension the film has arises less from his battle with the mob than the police investigation that arises in its aftermath. Perhaps fittingly the supporting cast float through the film as if in a trance letting the über charismatic Gabin dominate. Thus the film's title has something of a double meaning, both a slang term for heroin and symbolic totem for the implacable Maroilleur. It draws a clear divide between the hero who seems part of the landscape itself (in one scene emerging from the mists like a righteous spectre) and the interloping city thugs that recoil as dung stains their expensive shoes and, in a genuinely upsetting sequence, callously plough their car through a herd of cattle.
While admittedly shallow, La Horse is a compelling and reasonably taut thriller nonetheless with a performance of mythic stature from Jean Gabin and a cool harpsichord-led easy listening-meets-acid-jazz soundtrack by the legendary Serge Gainsbourg.