A charming, easygoing portrait of a bunch of characters in a Marseilles neighborhood, “Marius and Jeannette” is a small but bighearted pic that will delight fans of local-bred helmer Robert Guediguian following his move into the international spotlight with the similar ” ‘Til Death Do Us Part” (1995). Commercially, it lacks a strong enough personality to vault into many theatrical sites, but is perfect for further fest exposure and small-screen dates.
Setting is the small port district of Estaque, a world of Mediterranean side streets surrounded by unprepossessing factories. Bunched together around a shared courtyard live three families, whose womenfolk seem to share every secret while the men philosophize or while away the day. Nothing much extraordinary happens in their lives, but no one is ever at a loss for words.
Spunkiest of the lot is Jeannette (Ariane Ascaride, a wonderful mix of beneficence and bellicosity), a working mom who has managed to raise a teenage daughter and young, half-Arab son on a supermarket checkout girl’s wage. In a short space of time, her life is turned upside-down: She meets the amiable giant Marius (deadpan Gerard Meylan), a solitary guard at a disused cement factory, and gets fired from her job after bawling out her boss.
After a period of vacillating, Jeannette decides to go with Marius, and they strike up an unlikely relationship. But when everything seems to be coming up roses, Marius suddenly retreats to the isolation of his cement factory, and it’s left to Jeannette’s male neighbors to try to bring the big lug and her together again.
Virtually plotless, the movie is basically a collection of conversation pieces and ensemble gatherings, private confidences and shared meals, in which the richly varied characters expound on love, life, food, politics and philosophy. There’s a touch of classic ’30s pics by Jean Renoir and Rene Clair — though with a relaxed Mediterranean warmth — in the many courtyard scenes, with women chatting by the window and everyone conducting their lives in a shared, mutually supportive way.
Auds not attuned to such flimsy structures may reckon the movie amounts to a mighty small hill of beans, but it’s hard not to respond to helmer and co-scripter Guediguian’s generosity toward his characters, all of whom by the end emerge as fully shaped people. Even Jeannette’s boss (Pierre Banderet) gets his fair share of the personality pie, popping up through the pic in a variety of new jobs.
Performances by the cast (many from “Death” and other Guediguian pics) are on the button, especially Jean-Pierre Darroussin as the slobby, politically inept Dede, and Pascale Roberts as the ineffably pessimistic Caroline. Newcomer Laetitia Pesenti scores in several scenes as Jeannette’s quietly ambitious daughter, who has her sights on being a journalist in Paris. Technical credits, like Guediguian’s direction, are unshowy but do the job, and classical extracts liven up the soundtrack.