The title is ironic. The film opens with a leisurely 360-degree pan around a seemingly peaceful section of the French port city of Marseilles while a soothing medley of solo piano pieces — a little Satie, a little Beethoven — lulls us on the sound track. Anyone familiar with writer-director Robert Guédiguian’s oeuvre and its sympathetic depictions of the tribulations of race and class in this worker’s town will suspect that they’re being set up.
Guédigiuan has looked down on this city he loves (and despairs of) from the heights of a cathedral that overlooks it and has been beguiled by its duplicitous tranquility. “I always thought that this serenity was nothing but a facade,” he has written, “that bad things were swarming, dangerous scary things that could any time set fire to this town.” It’s these “dangerous, scary things” that The Town is Quiet sets about to uncover and in the process reveals a desperation that cuts across class, race and political ideology.
The town that he uncovers seems like one of those places that’s in the process of being rendered nearly obsolete by historical forces, a one-industry town whose wages are threatened by globalization and whose vaunted identity is under siege by an influx of immigrants. Still everyone goes through the motions.
Michele (Ariane Ascaride, Guédiguian’s wife and frequent star) works on the docks, hoisting fish almost as large as she is into crates of ice. She works long and hard hours before going home to her teenage daughter, Fiona (Julie-Marie Parmentier), a drug-addicted single mother, and her husband, Claude (Pierre Banderet), a deadbeat who ghost-walks around their apartment in an alcoholic haze. She’s motivated by her love for her child and her child’s baby, a love so unconditional that when Fiona becomes too sick to score, Michele starts to turn tricks on the side in order to get money for her daughter’s heroin.
This leads her to re-establish a contact with Gerard, an old flame who now runs a bar and who seems to have the necessary drug connections to serve as a go-between for Michele and the local pushers. Gerard has the demeanor of a classic tough guy, stolid and tight-lipped, but he’s also obscurely troubled and, we slowly learn, collapsing faster than the fractured society around him. Michele’s new sideline also leads to an unwanted acquaintance with Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a former dockworker who has quit his job to become a cabbie. Paul’s drug of choice is fantasy and, like most masking drugs, it offers diminishing returns.
At the other end of the social scale is Yves (Jacques Pieiller), a local city planner with a taste for gloomy aphorisms (“Our whole life is contained in pre-written phrases”) and his wife, Viviane (Christine Brucher), a teacher who seeks comfort in the arms of a former student. The student is Abderamane (Alexander Ogou), a North African who becomes a target of the workers roaming the street looking for an outlet for their surplus helplessness. Everybody has their reasons and none of them are good.
Guédiguian and his co-writer, Jean-Louis Milesi, handle the various and overlapping plot threads with an adeptness reminiscent of John Sayles at his most ambitious. There’s only a murky interlude involving Gerard and a senator’s daughter hinting at the 10 minutes or so that have been excised from the film’s original version. Unlike the last of the director’s films to get any significant U.S. distribution, Marius and Jeanette (1997), whose love-among-the-proles clichés prevented it from rising above being a big-hearted and sunny divertissement, Town is relentlessly downbeat. But it seems realistic and unforced, and is imbued with enough ambiguity to prevent it from becoming a polemic. No moustache-twirling capitalist and saintly workers here, just people caught in a situation created by forces too large to be seen and doing the best they can — which is not too well.
There are a few questionable touches — the framing device of a child-prodigy piano player, which is apparently meant to be hopeful, is simply perplexing — but the overall impact is perfectly devastating. This is the way things are, Guédiguian seems to be saying, and I don’t know what to do about it either.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].