Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Robert Guédiguian | La Ville est tranquille (The Town Is Quiet)


by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Louis Milesi and Robert Guédiguian (scenario and dialogue), Robert Guédiguian (director) La Ville est tranquille (The Town Is Quiet) / 2000 

The Marseille director Robert Guédiguian presents in a 360° pan at the beginning of this film, showing a city awash in a golden splendor of light, does indeed appear to be quiet and calm. The music we hear, Debussy, Bach, and works by other composers, is being played, we soon discover, by a young Georgian boy on an electric keyboard set up in a park; a sign asks listeners to contribute to his purchase of a real piano.

Union organizers are attempting to stand firm against dockyard closures and a payout agreement with the company, but the men shouting out their determination seem tired and look uncertain about their demands. One, a character we will later follow, Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), cannot even bring himself to join in their chants.

On a clear night, a group of city elites celebrate on a rooftop terrace, the host (perhaps a politician) going about his guests to briefly speak with each. One of the most stunning women in the group is Viviane Froment (Christine Brücher), whom we later discover is a music teacher currently working with mentally disabled children. Her husband, Yves (Jacques Pieiller), an architect, spends his time chatting and flirting with beautiful women.

So far we see nothing in Marseille that we might not encounter in any large city: Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris. The city is tranquil, or, as an African character later puts it, "The world looks happy from up here."

The irony of Guédiguian's title, accordingly, becomes evident when he takes us down into the streets to follow other denizens of Marseilles' l'Estaque district, the most notable of whom is Michèle (Ariane Ascaride), a woman whose daughter is a drug addict and has a baby born out of wedlock. Her husband is, as the movie puts it, on the "dole," a drunk who sits about all day complaining about his daughter's painful whimpers of withdrawal. To survive Michèle works as a fishmonger all night, returning in the mornings to feed and care for her baby granddaughter and daughter. When the daughter, Fiona, is not suffering she is out whoring for money to buy drugs. As Michèle screams out to her daughter, the drugs you bought last night surely cost more that I can make in a month! When her husband threatens her, she retorts, "Death would be nice."

For all that, Michèle is filled with determination and the will to survive, and she is the most loving and forgiving character of the film, so desperate to help her daughter, for example, that, after Fiona has used the doctor-prescripted antidote to get high, the mother contacts an old friend, a bartender, Gérard to help her obtain real drugs. When her savings runs out, she is determined even to pimp herself in order to cover the cost.

Into this world comes Paul, who has used his redundancy money to get a loan to purchase a new car and a cab license. Paul, the son of a former Partisan father and loving mother, also does not live such a tranquil life. A failure in everything, he represents the millions of individuals who work hard, but seem never to get ahead, cannot maintain relationships, and fall time and again throughout their lives. Claude, the man from who he has borrowed money, puts it bluntly: (in my summary, imprecise quote) "You will never pay me back and I will have to do something terrible to you. But I won't be able to because of my respect for your father." A man who seeks love from prostitutes, Paul observes Michèle's dismal failure to find clients, and takes her home without demanding sex. When soon after he loses his cab license for violation of taxi regulations, he returns to Michèle, this time paying her for sex. It is clear that he would like their relationship to go further, but she is too preoccupied to notice his obsequiousness.

Meanwhile, across town a young African, Abderramane (Alexandre Ogou), recently released from jail, observes Viviane teaching her students in an auditorium. He has sought her out because of the memorable experiences he had as a member of a choir she taught in prison, and he is determined to do something better with his life. Like Michèle, Viviane is fed up with her husband, and finds a gracefulness in Abderramane's flattery. Before long, he is helping her students to dance, and the two briefly come together for a one night of love. Soon after Abderramane is shot by fascists, who include Michèle's husband, for attempting to swim in the nearby ocean.

Michèle's life continues to spin downward, as her daughter needs higher and higher doses of crack cocaine. She is so exhausted, that she misses her workshift for the first time. Fiona continues to cry out in pain.

Gérard, we discover, along with Paul, who mysteriously follows him, is an assassin, who we watch kill a city notable celebrating on a rooftop party just as we have witnessed early on. Michèle fires up another dose of drugs for her daughter, this time adding a second packet and yet a third. Smiling in the bliss of relief, Fiona awaits the needle which will result in her death. Gérard arrives, responding to Michèle's news a few minutes before Paul arrives for another sexual encounter. Despite the fact that he knows he is intruding on some dreadful happening, this time he insists he will not go, but stay. What happens, we are never told. But it is clear that they can no longer help one another, that they are both doomed to face the circumstances of their acts.

We witness one such encounter with truth. Gérard, angry with some pedestrians who react to his near-refusal to stop his car to let them pass, picks up a gun as if he intends to shoot them. As he exits the car, however, he turns the gun instead into his own mouth before releasing the trigger.

In a small street of the immigrant ghetto, a piano is being delivered. Left for a few seconds in the middle of the street, the young Georgian boy with which the film began, sits down to play.

Guédiguian's harrowing film is often described as a painfully realist presentation of Marseille, but in its intricacies of plot and its density of coincidence, it is, to my way of thinking, more like a kind of fantasy. Even the most well-rounded character in the work, Michèle, is almost too selfless to be believed; the others are all rather vague, their actions often muddled.

Yet for all that, the film works as a piece of art, for we realize that any attempt to describe the motivations and behavior of real people is a kind of fantasy. Just as Viviane, earlier in the film, suggests her husband's self-proclaimed love of "the people" belies his complete ignorance of them—"For you the people are a fantasy"—we all can only imagine what is inside each other. The impetus of Guédiguian's film is not realist characterization but a political statement, a presentation, of sorts, of the various social and political positions one might take within any large community. Far from being quiet, life in a city is always noisy, a mess of various voices and demands, which is also why city life is so terrifyingly exciting, creating a place where one never knows what to expect. The town is quiet only when one refuses to listen to its people calling out.

Los Angeles, March 16, 2011

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