For more than 30 years, Robert Guediguian and his merry band of loyal actors made deeply humanistic films set among Marseille’s working class — sunlit, somewhat fanciful variations on Ken Loach’s grittier oeuvre. But as the bonds of worker solidarity have grown increasingly fragile, the director has transported his repertory of regulars into other times and spaces and, in “Ariane’s Thread,” squarely into dreamland. Though this joyful proletarian commedia dell’arte lacks the mythical dimension of Renoir’s “Golden Coach” or Fellini’s “8½,” and is unlikely even to enjoy the popularity of Guediguian’s “Marius and Jeanette” (1997), the helmer’s fans will not be disappointed.
Seemingly abandoned by friends and family on her birthday, Ariane (the helmer’s lifelong partner and muse, Ariane Ascaride), leaves her suburban apartment and winds up, sans money or phone, in a picturesque seaside restaurant. The place caters to an elderly clientele of habitués who are bussed in by a young man (Adrien Jolivet) on a motorcycle, who befriends Ariane when her purse is stolen. Such is her vivacious interest in everything and everyone around her that she is soon working in the restaurant, run by gruff Denis (Gerard Meylan), sleeping on his boat and enthusiastically helping and advising everyone who happens to wander into her purview.
The realization that there is something passing strange about the world Ariane has drifted into — that it is, as the opening credits suggest, “a flight of fantasy” — builds slowly. When she leaves suburbia, her modern apartment complex sporadically morphs into a whited-out architectural mockup, which then morphs back into color and solidity. The restaurant abounds in allusions and citations; various individual characters and sometimes the entire cafe burst into songs of love and leftist politics by Jean Ferret and Bertolt Brecht; “thoughts” penned by resident poet Jack (Jean Boudet), actually passages from Pasolini and Chekov, are read aloud to general approbation. A pet tortoise breaks into speech, though only Ariane can hear and converse with it. An African night watchman (Youssouf Djaoro) talks in his sleep, loudly bemoaning the fate of the ocean creatures preserved in formaldehyde he was forced to abandon when let go from his former job at the local Natural History Museum — embalmed critters that are now headed for the garbage dump.
With Ariane leading the way, Denis, Jack, the motorcyclist, his redheaded prostitute g.f. Lola (Lola Naymark) and the night watchman embark on a nighttime adventure to rescue the latter’s pickled sea creatures from a gated, locked museum, then pile into a boat to return them to the sea. In a possible nod to Shakespeare, a storm blows up and the adventurers are tempest-tossed onto an island. There, they stumble across an amphitheater upon which a temperamental actress (the beauteous Anais Desmoustier) is caught mid-histrionics while flouncing out of the show, leaving her director (the trusty Jean-Pierre Darroussin, who plays an irascible taxi driver in an earlier scene) with his head melodramatically thrust into a noose. This provides Ariane with the perfect opportunity to act out her fantasy and follow in her chanteuse mother’s footsteps, charming the crowd with an all-stops-out Brecht-Weill cabaret number.
Perhaps working-class solidarity is merely a dream nowadays, but it is a dream with deep roots (as recently attested to by the Dardenne brothers’ magnificent “Two Days, One Night”). While “Ariane’s Thread” evokes the poetic realism of the 30’s French populist cinema of Feydeau, Prevert, Vigo and early Renoir, it does so less in terms of an organic visual style and more in terms of its expression of a shared ethos. Indeed, Guediguian’s old-fashioned enclave by the sea reads like a vacation getaway to a re-created time and space (complete with bussed-in extras) appropriated by Ariane because of her need to belong. There is something deliberated distanced, even artificial, about Ascaride’s centrality in the frame, the intense physicality of ’30s lyricism here replaced by the shimmering vistas of a proletarian Club Med.