Last year, when writer-director Robert Guediguian‘s film The Town Is Quiet (La Ville Est Tranquille) played as part of the “City of Lights, City of Angels” French film festival, it seemed prescient. Now it’s eerily timely. Set in modern-day Marseilles, a warily multiethnic city whose once-bustling harbor economy has given way to the dole and social doldrums, the film is a white-hot critique of capitalism and its drag du jour, globalization. Coming to local theaters on the heels of recent World Economic Forum protests and a flurry of activity by anarchists sent here to save you all, the film speaks for the here and now in ways that shame the jingoism and reactionary racial politics of other recent Zeitgeist fare (Black Hawk Down, Collateral Damage, Behind Enemy Lines). Artistically complex but deceptively simple in its extolling of old-school interpersonal values, The City Is Quiet leaves you reeling from the force of the humanity it captures and — in its own gut-wrenching way — honors.
Guediguian, who co-wrote the script with Jean-Louis Milesi (who also shared writing credit on the director‘s 1997 film Marius and Jeanette), pins his tale on the interlocked fates of four characters: Michele (Ariane Ascaride), a middle-aged woman who works nights in a fish-packing warehouse to support her teenage junkie daughter, infant grandchild and alcoholic husband; Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a factory worker who turns his back on his union in order to start his own business as a taxi driver; Viviane Froment (Christine Brucher), a music teacher whose social conscience leads her to separate from her pseudo-liberal architect husband; and Abderamane (Alexandre Ogou), a North African immigrant recently released from prison and struggling to turn his life around. Guediguian weaves the characters’ lives together so that each is part of the backdrop for the others, with some of them only tangentially connected — Abderamane serves lunch to Michele and her daughter one day in his job as a waiter — while other relationships, defined by blood or lust, are a collision course of agendas and intentions. The film‘s power is derived from its poetic braiding of the personal and the large-scale political. Guediguian and his actors, all of whom are note-perfect, make dialogue that should fall with a thud breathe organically, as when Viviane seethes to her husband, “I prefer poor people who vote far right to petty fools like you who claim to help them. You disguise your craving for power as a passion for good causes.” They also let silence speak when words are insufficient to the task of communicating hurt or longing.
What makes The Town Is Quiet simultaneously painful and utterly engrossing is Guediguian’s fine hand, his delicately nuanced leftist perspective. (No, that‘s not a contradiction in terms.) His unobtrusive camera is at times documentarylike, and his nonjudgmental approach to his characters is, in fact, compassionate. Poignant moments and juxtapositions abound: the subtle cutting back and forth between the powder of a baby’s formula and the smack that her mother shoots up; a rap elegy that a teenager composes for his murdered friend; the scene in which Viviane derides her husband‘s hypocrisy in language that also serves to delineate the breakdown of their marriage. And the scene where an exhausted Michele, just arrived home from her shift, struggles to hold the grandchild she’s bottle-feeding while tenderly caressing her daughter, who‘s suffering from painful drug withdrawal, is heartbreaking, if unsentimental.
Guediguian also provides a eulogy for the demise of leftist ideals, as when Paul’s embittered father, upon learning that his son has abandoned the union, barks, “Thirty years ago, if you‘d done that I’d have spit in your face. But today . . . you were right. What are they fighting for? Their own little perks. And what the fuck do they do? They all go and vote for the far right, now!” Unlike Paul‘s father, Guediguian has a blunt and sympathetic understanding of the fact that sometimes the poor don’t want to challenge the status quo (they‘re too tired, defeated, hungry) — they simply want their piece of it.