Marius and Jeanette

Dec 2, 1998 at 12:00 am

Set in the Estaque district of Marseilles, writer-director Robert Guédiguian's Marius and Jeannette is the kind of movie one likes despite oneself. Its generous infusions of warm and fuzzy feeling into a bleak situation ring false, but break down one's cynical resistance all the same.

Jeannette (Ariane Ascaride) works as a cashier in a grocery store where her feisty temper keeps her in trouble. She's on a constant tirade against the "fascist" management and, in one scene, commandeers the p.a. system and berates the customers as idiot consumers. Marius (Gerard Meylan) is a more stoic working stiff who's employed as a security guard at an abandoned cement factory. One day, when Jeannette is trying to steal some cans of paint from the site, Marius is forced to chase her away. This is what used to be known, in an earlier era of comic movie courtships, as "meeting cute."

Marius has the predictable change of heart and later shows up at Jeannette's with the purloined paint. Slowly but surely, true love evolves. The movie follows the conventional pattern of initial attraction, separation and reunion, but it's more interesting as a generally cheerful, collective character study than as romance.

Jeannette, with her two children, lives in a small tenement with a communal courtyard, and it's there that the idealized interactions of the dwelling's plucky proletarians unfold. Her neighbors include a woman who was imprisoned as a communist by the Nazis during World War II (the actress is about 20 years too young for the role), a supposedly lovable buffoon whose wife will never let him forget that he voted for the racist National Front in the last election, and a retired math professor prone to giving Jeannette's kids garbled lectures on religion.

This could have been pretty grim, but Guédiguian is determined to maintain a sunny mood and he largely succeeds. Sometimes he overdoes it -- one more reaction shot of a smiling face to reassure us that these people really love each other and I would have exited, groaning. But the leads are appealing and, ultimately, the kindness of the director's gaze is infectious.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].