Welcome to Marseille

ON ONE SIDE of the Corniche — the road that runs south from downtown Marseille to the more prosperous neighborhoods that surround the city’s Prado beach — a low cliff drops off to the sparkling water of the Mediterranean. On the road’s other side, elegant 19th-century houses are stacked up against hills that range inland, creating a border between the city and the Provençal countryside. Cédric Jimenez’s 2014 film The Connection begins with a drive down this road. Two men on a motorcycle move fluidly through traffic, while the camera winds around them, taking in the road, the guard wall, the horizon, and the curve of the coast that hides the city from view. It’s a sunny day, full of bright light that makes the sea go white with its reflection. Palms and the white walls of villas roll over the edge of the camera’s view. The motorcycle pulls past a gas station in front of a shining Mercedes and eases to a stop. The man on the back of the bike turns, shoots the car’s driver, and walks over to make sure the job is done. Welcome to Marseille.

The Connection is the third film to examine the Marseille-based drug ring that funneled heroin into North American and European markets from the 1950s to the 1980s. Released in France as La French in 2014, The Connection made the rounds of North American theaters this summer, taking its audience into the world of drug kingpin Gaëtan “Tany” Zampa, his cronies, competitors, and the city’s magistrate, Pierre Michel, who sets out to undo the city’s drug empire. This is the Marseille underworld of the 1971 classic The French Connection and its 1975 sequel. Unlike these earlier portraits, however, Jimenez’s film connects the mayhem of the Marseille drug scene to the city’s cultural and economic evolution in the late 1970s.

Both Zampa, played by Gilles Lellouche, and Michel, played by Jean Dujardin, were real and important figures in Marseille’s crime-filled decades. Michel rose through the ranks of the French legal system from his start as a youth crime officer in the early 1970s, only to be shot on his way home for lunch in 1981 — a consequence of his having upset the smooth and profitable flow of narcotics in and out of the city. As for Zampa, he headed Marseille’s Corsican mafia from the 1950s until he was apprehended by the police a few years after Michel’s assassination. Framed as a protracted cat and mouse game between these two men, The Connection fixates on the grit and glamour of Marseille in the 1970s. When Dujardin’s Michel wades through the bloody remains of a café massacre, the scene cribs from news footage of the event, grounding the legends of the film’s characters in an eerie feeling of historical accuracy.


Marseille is France’s oldest city, a Greek outpost of Hellenic trading ambition, a Roman toehold in the western Mediterranean. Go looking for signs of this classical past in the present city and you won’t find much. To the 19th-century archivist Louis Méry, Marseille was “an antique city without antiquities,” its ruins tucked into forgotten courtyards and, more recently, buried into the foundations of parking lots. The inscriptions and pieces of Roman wall that you can see in Marseille today were dug up and put on display in the 1960s, as the city began to rebuild, filling in the negative space left by the German occupation. These gaps in the urban fabric were blasted into existence in 1943 when, following the deportation of large numbers of the city’s Jewish and Roma residents, German troops set about demolishing the neighborhoods around Marseille’s port with dynamite.

While archeologists argued for the importance of the classical past unearthed by World War II’s destruction, the architects responsible for managing the city’s reconstruction — Roger-Henri Expert and André Leconte — continued the process of clearing out the historic buildings left standing. Identity in Marseille was seen in commerce, not stone: that was where the city’s ambitions lay. After the war and into the 1980s, Marseille’s planners prioritized modernization and reorganization, replacing old, crumbling neighborhoods with new developments, and displacing architectural artifacts to preserve decorations and sections of ornate façades without context.

By the late 1970s, the port that had fueled Marseille’s economy since its founding was looking less like a viable option for sustaining its economic future. In 1980, commercial shipping operations moved up the coast to the new port at Fos, turning Marseille into a port city without a functional port. Replacing some of the city’s remaining infrastructure, two modernist-influenced buildings — the black-screened box of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) and the Villa Méditerranée — opened to the public in 2013, announcing a new architectural profile for the city. Port and waterfront, old and new, these are the visions of Marseille that compete for public attention as the city finds a place for itself without the industry that sustained it for 2,000 years.

Look at the city today and you will see a linked series of fragments: wide 19th-century boulevards designed for trolleys cut through neighborhoods of crumbling 18th-century houses that crowd along narrower streets. Two 17th-century forts watch over the entrance to the harbor, both built by Louis XIV to guard against foreign attack and local rebellion as he integrated Marseille into a newly centralized France. The train station, court house, and other important symbols of the postrevolutionary French state are islands around which the city’s notorious traffic flows, and the ever-changing waterfront is an evolving experiment in what the city might be: a defensible port, an industrial ship yard, a glamorous outpost along a maritime trail for cruise ships and afternoon shopping trips. 

The best thing about Marseille is this historical confusion: the way that the city tries to stop you from ever seeing only one thing, offering, if you look closely, diverse and contradictory faces. Walter Benjamin visited Marseille in the 1920s and wandered the streets in a hash-induced haze. His account of his hallucinatory experiment was informed by the city that he chose for it: the uncanny effects of the drug reinforced the repetition of a city of identical portside restaurants. Names on streetcars promised novel destinations, but the neighborhoods all looked the same. The stone pavement and wide boulevards mixed with his memories of Parisian streets, but the delirium through which he saw Marseille created an image of an anti-Paris: a city without the capital’s monuments or distinctions — a city that had tried, throughout its history, to have as little as possible to do with its sister to the north.


The late-1970’s decline of Marseille’s port and it’s effect on the city’s economy — from the brevity of Marseille’s disco surge to a growing infrastructure that wove tunnels and high-speed roads through largely unchanged, crumbling neighborhoods — is made manifest in The Connection in a way that it wasn’t in The French Connection or its sequel. Indeed, William Friedkin’s 1971 The French Connection was a New York movie: mostly set and filmed in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In it, there is a stark contrast between Fernando Rey’s French gangster, Charnier, a champagne drinking drug lord, and Gene Hackman’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, an out of control narcotics inspector. These dueling characters mirror the difference that the film finds between the golden criminal ease of Marseille, with its beaches and pleasure yachts, and New York’s gaudy nightclubs and concrete streets. With Hackman always one step behind, The French Connection presents a fatalistic vision of a new city battling the old: on the one side, the unruly American; on the other, the sophisticated French man.

Marseille, for its part, once looked to New York to shape its image. Jacques Gréber, the French architect and planner, envisioned a New York–Marseille connection in his 1933 proposal for the French city. He saw the American metropolis as a model, although he thought more in terms of position and environment than of form. (He had no desire to see early skyscrapers rising above the Mediterranean port.) He wanted the city to be a hub for transnational exchange, its importance guaranteed by the fact that it stood as a French gateway to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. But the reality of the repeating forms that characterize Marseille’s narrow streets and its political and economic position within the French state kept it at a distance, both formally and functionally, from the American city that Gréber idolized. It was more Jersey City than Manhattan. 

In John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II, this distance is the basis of the fiction that sustains the film’s plot and unmoors its protagonist. Marseille was, at the time, growing with a reckless abandon. The impenetrability of the city to Hackman’s Popeye destroys the synergy between character and city that is part of the genius of Friedkin’s film. Where at home Popeye’s instincts had directed his volatility toward his goals, abroad, his instincts thwart him. Marseille becomes a city in opposition to his character. The film begins with a group of French police up to their elbows in fish guts, looking for smuggled drugs. It is an absurdist mingling of the bloody and the picturesque, allowing us to see that Popeye’s uneasy relation to the city and its criminal world will subvert the normal thriller plot. He is the bait — a pawn rather than a player. And it’s his disorientation in the face of Marseille’s lookalike streets and the complex knots of its criminal network that drives the film. 

With French protagonists at its center, The Connection provides an intimate portrait of this city, whose public image has changed as much as its waterfront in the past 30 years. Jimenez’s film uses familiar images of crime-ridden 1970s Marseille to lead his viewer through a richly imagined past and into a recognizable future. By mixing period interiors with street scenes and exterior shots that are easily recognizable to the present day viewer, The Connection is able to link the glamorous aspects of the 1970s city to its current architectural landscape. The film therefore gestures toward contemporary Marseille, finding points of continuity between past and present in a transhistorical desire for the modern. Zampa shows off his success in a luxury villa with white leather couches, a swimming pool, and wide glass windows. He spends his money toasting his wife’s birthday in a club with mirrored walls and a hot DJ, adding extra energy to the sweltering southern night. The motorcycles ridden by Zampa’s hitmen and Pierre Michel lean into turns on smoothly paved roads through the hills. They speed through tunnels under the city, and climb stepped streets made for feet, not wheels, with equal ease. At times it seems as if The Connection takes place in the Marseille of 2014 rather than the 1970s city that its characters inhabit. 

As Pierre Michel rides his motorcycle to and from his home, for example, he passes into a tunnel under the Vieux-Port, and the city disappears. As he rolls on, it feels like the tunnel goes under half of Marseille — a feeling closer to that of driving through the tunnel from the Prado than the shorter subterranean trip between the two sides of the natural harbor. But the longer Prado tunnel opened in 1993, whereas the shorter one under the Vieux-Port opened in 1967. In this ambiguity of geography and chronology, the film slips its characters into the time between their lives and fictionalized afterlives. This isn’t a complaint about the film’s accuracy, but a curious reflection on the city itself. As its narrative leads the characters around, through, and under the city, The Connection builds a city without history, only a constant present.

Over the course of the past 20 years, Marseille has become a site of rapid gentrification — fancy shops and condominiums, as well as a sinuous skyscraper by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, rise along its revitalized waterfront. In tourist information and New York Times travel articles, the message is clear: this is a city with style and substance. Less violent than dynamite, these renovations radiate a new slickness that is beginning to change the public image of Marseille. The Connection uses the disco aesthetics of the recent past to wrap the present attitude toward Marseille around the city’s crumbling historical streets. In doing so, it creates an aura of timelessness, a slippage in the historical orientation of the film, as the viewer recognizes present experiences and features of the Mediterranean city over the shoulders of the film’s gangsters and officials.

While this aesthetic might not be enough to make a great film out of The Connection’s somewhat meandering plot and thin characters, it does make for a stylish encapsulation of the place that Marseille is carving out for itself in the 21st-centrury Mediterranean. It is a city full of nostalgia for crumbling buildings and an ancient past. It is also a place where economic divisions, racism, and urban development risk disappearing in the glow of gentrifying neighborhoods. The ease with which Jimenez’s film styles the present city into a facsimile of its recent past shows us how these contradictory impulses might, for better or worse, make for a city where clear distinctions between then and now don’t exist: a Marseille of the eternal present.


Ruth Jones is a writer and researcher who splits her time between Los Angeles and Toronto. She writes about books, films, and urban design.