The French have a word for police informers: la balance. That's because the stoolies hold the balance between the cops and the criminals. But Bob Swaim's "La Balance" suggests more than one meaning for the word, since it's about a man and woman who are desperately trying to hold everything in the balance: their lives, their commitments, their self-destructive lifestyles. And what makes "La Balance" ever so much more absorbing than the ordinary crime movie is that it's more interested in the lives than in the crimes.
The woman is Nicole, a prostitute played by Nathalie Baye, that solemn-faced, quietly beautiful actress who played the wife in "The Return of Martin Guerre." She has been living for several years with Dede (Philippe Leotard), a small-time hood whose genial smile makes it clear that he will go to almost any length to avoid work.
The police think Dede may be the key in the pursuit of Massina, a powerful hoodlum who has been almost impossible to corner. Dede does not think so. He knows that being la balance can guarantee him a short, unhappy life and a painful death. The cops are manipulative. They use Nicole against Dede, and then Dede against Nicole, and because they do love one another, they're trapped.
The movie tells two stories at once. One involves the police tactics against Massina. The other involves Nicole and Dede and the underworld they inhabit, of hookers and transvestites, bartenders and pimps, crooked cops and double-crossing criminals.