La Ville Est Tranquille

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

LA VILLE EST TRANQUILLE

6/10

The Town Is Quiet
France 2001
director : Robert Guedigian
script : Guedigian, Jean-Louis Milesi
producers include :Guedigian
cinematography : Bernard Cavalie
editing : Bernard Sasia
music : Jacques Menichetti
lead actors : Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Gerard Meylan, Alexandre Ogou
132 minutes

La Ville est Tranquille is the story of an ordinary, remarkable city – Marseille – and of an ordinary, remarkable woman who lives there – fish-packer Michele (Ascaride). Around this central figure, Guedigian constructs an network of intersections, relationships and coincidences to convey the dynamics of a town poised on the brink of a new era. It’s the kind of thing John Sayles pulled off with City of Hope, and the basic technique – multiple characters and plot-lines deployed to make broadly political points – goes back at least as far as Altman’s Nashville.

Guedigian’s approach is much more rough-edged than those American predecessors. We’re not exactly in dogme country, but there is something distinctly kitchen-sink about the way Guedigian shows Michele at work (she flexes her fingers to stop the ice making them seize up) and at home, where she cares for her teenage daughter, a promiscuous single mother unsuccessfully trying to kick her drug habit. Michele’s husband is a drunken, good-for-nothing layabout, and she drifts into casual sex with Paul (Darroussin), a former docker who broke union ranks, took redundancy and now drives a cab. Her gives Michele the money she needs to buy drugs for her daughter from shady bar-owner Gerard (Meylan), who has his own secret agenda.

As this synopsis suggests, this isn’t laugh-a-minute material. But it’s never quite as downbeat as it might be, either, because Michele herself never succumbs to depression. Her husband worse than useless, her daughter worse than helpless, it’s up to Michele to look after infant grand-daughter Ameline, to keep the household together. And she’s nothing if not resilient – Guedigian puts both actress and character through it, and by the end this small, bird-like woman’s taut face has become a tear-streaked mask of misery. But there’s a defiance that drives her through the bad times: “Death would be nice,” she snaps at her husband, but it’s a retort, not a plea.

Ascaride’s marvellous performance is the best thing about the movie – then again, Michele is the only fully rounded character on display, and the vast majority of the masculine parts are either woefully underwritten or thoroughly unsympathetic. Paul is an especially lazy compendium of defects – exploitative, crooked, immoral, deceitful. he really has no redeeming features at all. Gerard, meanwhile, is a complete blank, the opacity of his motives making his actions during movie’s unexpectedly violent climax all the more ambiguous.

To have all these characters constantly coming into contact with each other stretches plausibility, but we accept it as part of the territory – let’s call it sociological license. But for a central character to unexpectedly reveal himself as a professional hitman, however, is surely a step too far, even if it does set up the film’s major visual coup. He surveys various characters through a long-distance night-vision viewfinder that renders the image strikingly circular digital, his crosshairs lingering over one particular female – lecherous voyeurism, or the prelude to violent death?

The hitman revelation signals Guedigian’s disappointing shift into easy movie melodrama – there are four deaths in the last half-hour (two of which are marred by cuts to sentimental flashbacks) whereas the film’s strength had been in its convincing recreation of everyday city life. And, despite initial impressions, the title of La Ville est Tranquille isn’t at all ironic. We mainly see Marseille in the distance, as a backdrop, so that the roar of the traffic blends with the buzz of the crickets and the sounds of street children to create a surprisingly subdued environment for the stories to unfold.

Guedigian opens his movie an apparently 360-degree pan around the city, making plain his panoramic ambition. Strange, then, that he makes no mention, either visual or verbal, of the one thing Marseille is known for internationally these days: neither far-right politics, nor militant dockers, nor heavy industry, nor the cosmopolitan nature of a town built on immigration. To go 132 minutes without a single reference to football – the team, its players, its fans, and its notorious ex-owner, Bernard Tapie – is a remarkable, if somewhat baffling, feat.

21st August, 2001
(seen Aug-16-01, Filmhouse Edinburgh – Film Festival)
by Neil Young
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