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La Ville est Tranquille

Robert Guediguian

The Town is Quiet

Robert Guediguian’s most ambitious and wholly satisfying film to date, the ironically titled La Ville est tranquille provides a hard-hitting portrait of the problems facing a multitude of characters in l’Estque, a working class district of Marseilles that’s the setting for most of the director’s films. Guediguian has broaden his scope here and imposed a little more distance between himself and his characters in order to mount a powerful critique of the ills of modern society. Although played out with the same kind of warmth and sympathy that one associates with the director of Marius and Jeannette, the new film is much tougher in tone and has a wider political relevance.
At the centre of the film’s large cast of characters is Michele (Ariane Ascaride), a working class mother who slaves away at the local fish market in order to support her drug-addict daughter and unemployed husband. Michele is another of the director’s salt-of-the-earth mother figures, but she’s pushed to much further extremes than any of Guedguian’s previous heroines. She not only has to look after her daughter’s baby, but decides to prostitute herself in order to procure drugs. Worse still, she is unable to save her daughter from a terminal overdose, and feels responsible for the young woman’s tragic fate. This sense of desperation also afflicts the other characters, most of whom are living on the edge.
In the past, Guediguian has been accused of producing rather soft-hearted fables that reflect outmoded Popular Front values. La Ville should lay such criticisms to rest. We are a long way here from that sense of a nurturing, close-knit community to be found in the earlier films. Indeed, it is this lack of communal spirit that seems responsible for the characters’ sense of hopelessness and despair. ‘What neighbours?’ comments Michele at a point of crisis, implying that she cannot call on anyone in her anonymous tower-block. This is the harshest of Guediguian’s portraits, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Glimmers of hope flicker throughout the film and are usually associated with the immigrant characters. La Ville opens with a young Georgian pianist playing some beautiful music outdoors in an attempt to raise money for his tuition fees. It ends with the young prodigy being helped by a friendly group to move his piano into an upstairs apartment.
France, 2000. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 132 min.

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