Though it's a rung down from the marvelously observed "Marius and Jeannette," Robert Guediguian's latest foray into the lives and emotions of Marseilles' working class is still a warmly textured slice of humanist cinema that manages to spring some surprises within its resolutely non-dramatic structure. A look at an average blue-collar family through the prism of a daughter's love affair with a black man, it's probably too slight to make much impact on the arthouse circuit, but it shows the 45-year-old helmer still reaching into new territory stylistically. Quality tube sales look assured.

Though it’s a rung down from the marvelously observed “Marius and Jeannette,” Robert Guediguian’s latest foray into the lives and emotions of Marseilles’ working class is still a warmly textured slice of humanist cinema that manages to spring some surprises within its resolutely non-dramatic structure. A look at an average blue-collar family through the prism of a daughter’s love affair with a black man, it’s probably too slight to make much impact on the arthouse circuit, but it shows the 45-year-old helmer still reaching into new territory stylistically. Quality tube sales look assured.

Where “Marius” was almost modern-day Renoir-esque in its ensemble portrait of characters living around a courtyard, “A la place du coeur” is pitched closer to Hal Hartley (with occasional flecks of Bresson) in its formalism, dry humor and occasional magical touches. Effect is sometimes a little arch but forgivable because of the obvious empathy Guediguian has for his fellow Marseillers.

Voiceover narrator is Clim (tiny, porcelain-faced Laure Raoust, like a young Maria de Medeiros), who patiently explains that her nickname is derived from Clementine before introducing the audience to her lover, Bebe (real name: Francois). Bebe (Alexandre O Gou), at 18 two years older than Clim, is in prison on a phony charge of rape — thanks to a racist cop — and Clim visits him to reveal that she’s pregnant.

After a flashback to sketch how the two first became friends as kids and then lovers, pic fans out to embrace the families of Clim and Bebe, turning into a rounded portrait of adults and young people alike. Bebe is the adopted son of a white couple — hard-drinking docker Franck (Gerard Meylan) and Bible-bashing Francine (Christine Bruecher) — who also adopted Bebe’s sister and re-named her Blondine. Clim’s family is more caring and better adjusted, composed of dad Joel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a mason, mom Marianne (Ariane Ascaride, a Guediguian regular) and sis Sophie (Veronique Balme).

As Clim’s belly slowly swells, the movie moves back and forth from past to present, filling out the characters and story blanks and poking around in interesting corners.

While the two fathers bond and bemoan growing unemployment in the city, Marianne takes a trip to Sarajevo to track down the woman who claims she was raped by Bebe. Though the outcome is affecting, this is the one section of the film that feels false, shoehorning the misery of a quite different kind of conflict into a story that’s very Marseilles-centered in its racial mix.

Guediguian doesn’t grandstand the racial implications of Clim and Bebe’s relationship. Thanks to Clim’s voiceovers, the whole film has at times a magical-realist flavor, precisely lensed and showing great tolerance for its characters, with even the somewhat crazed Francine evoking a measure of sympathy. It’s also a movie of sly, sometimes wordless humor, not so much for what the characters say but more for the comic situations in which their actions land them.

Performances are all finely judged, with Ascaride and Darroussin terrific as Clim’s parents, and music (largely from Liszt’s Nocturnes) positioned with skill and economy. Pic, which shared the Special Jury Prize at San Sebastian, runs a trifle long in its final stages but not damagingly so.

A la Place Du Coeur

(DRAMA -- FRENCH)

Production

An Agat Films production, in association with La Sept Cinema, France 2 Cinema , Le Studio Canal Plus and Diaphana. (International sales: Le Studio Canal Plus, Paris.) Producer, Gilles Sandoz. Directed by Robert Guediguian. Screenplay, Jean-Louis Milesi, Guediguian.

Crew

Camera (color), Bernard Cavalie; editor, Bernard Sasia; art director, Michel Vandestien; sound (Dolby), Laurent Lafran, Dominique Gaborieau; assistant director, Jacques Reboud. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 16, 1998. (Also in Montreal Film Festival -- Cinema of Today -- and San Sebastian Festival, competing.) Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Marianne ..... Ariane Ascaride Francine ..... Christine Bruecher Joel ..... Jean-Pierre Darroussin Franck ..... Gerard Meylan Bebe ..... Alexandre O Gou Clim ..... Laure Raoust Sophie ("Soeurette") ..... Veronique Balme
With: Pierre Banderet, Jacques Boudet, Jacques Pieller, Helene Surgere.
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