A tale of two cities

Marseilles, viewed from top to bottom.


directed by Robert Gu餩guian with Ariane Ascaride and Jean-Pierre Darroussin runs Feb. 15-21 at Varsity

THE SOUTH OF France frightens France, as Sicily does Rome and Rome does Milan. It's uncivilized, uncouth, wild, primitive. Appropriately, Robert Gu餩guian turns his eye on the sun-baked Mediterranean port city of Marseilles with an apprehensive gaze. He begins The Town Is Quiet with a 360-degree urban panorama accompanied by a halting medley of piano clich鳮 (Later we learn that the player is a young Russian immigrant prodigy.) More properly, however, his camera axis is 180 degrees, vertical. He starts with the rooftops and descends to the gutters, surveying more than a half-dozen characters of divergent class and ethnicity whose stories occasionally overlap.

Marseilles is an immigrant city, proximate to Africa and the Middle East. Politics range from new-right xenophobia to old-guard socialism, but globalization is the despised watchword of the day. Everyone seems to be out of work and on the dole. Town's blue-collar heroine is Mich謥 (Ariane Ascaride), who packs fish by night and cares for her smack addict daughter's infant by day. Her alcoholic husband has been out of work for three years; we're not even told who he is when he abruptly appears, midway through Town, in their drab high-rise housing project—one of many narrative blunders that riddle the film.

BASICALLY A MARTYR, Mich謥 and her dead-end existence are contrasted with various other Marseilles citizens: sad-sack Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a taxi driver infatuated with her; an upper-class couple whose neglected wife embarks on an affair with an idealistic black immigrant; a bored flirt who embarks on an affair with the sympathetic but shady character who supplies heroin to Mich謥; plus their variously discontented family members and friends.

Out of such sadness and debasement, from the occasional speeches decrying the lost solidarity of the working class, can there be any redemption? Well, after three shooting deaths, one OD, several episodes of joyless, commercial sex, and a few diaper changes, there is a suggestion—barely—of new beginnings, but Marseilles and its woeful inhabitants emerge like a kind of Detroit-on-the- Riviera. The whole place is damned, doomed, imploding, and no amount of social-realist filmmaking can freshen that fatalistic perspective.

Even though it's a dirge, Town's best moment comes when lovelorn Paul sings "L'Internationale" in different languages to Mich謥 in his cab. They both smile, as we do, at the idealism now transformed into tuneful nostalgia. Those days are gone. Groping for some sort of profundity, Town merely peddles predictable melodrama and trite conclusions. "I can't go on," despairs Mich謥 at one point. In the end, since the tedious, unrelentingly grim Town has no payoffs or insights to redeem her suffering, you know exactly how she feels.


comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow