Dedicated regional filmmaker Robert Guediguian again pays tribute to the plucky, disenfranchised workers of a special corner of Marseilles in “Charge!,” his third “Tale of l’Estaque.” Thanks to pockets of originality and a game cast, the fanciful story of a colorful extended family toiling nonstop to keep their garage afloat sustains a certain rough-hewn charm bracketed by slightly forced whimsy. Fest programmers and Guediguian’s fan base will be amused by helmer’s tongue-in-cheek treatment of his customary catalogue of ingredients.
Guediguian’s “Marius and Jeannette” (1997), an offbeat tale of unemployment and romance in the Estaque quarter, drew a dazzling 2.6 million viewers in France alone. His subsequent film, “A la place du coeur” (1998), played the fest circuit but locally was a critical and commercial flop. Current tale fares reasonably well, although it hedges its bets by making the main story a work-in-progress being typed by two screenwriters, with helmer’s stock company acting out each good, bad or indifferent idea as the script takes shape.
The device makes all sorts of “what if?” vignettes possible — at one point the image crumples like a rejected sheet of paper after one far-fetched idea fails to pan out — but it’s also a bit cloying in the long run. And as the old-fashioned credits and jaunty music signal early on, pic is as self-reflective as it is irreverent.
Garage mechanics Gigi (Gerard Meylan, who played Marius) and Jean-Do (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) repair cars with the support of Lola (Ariane Ascaride, who played Jeannette), a pragmatic widow who was seven months pregnant when her adored husband died. Also around are her father-in-law, who substitutes Italian Resistance songs for lullabies; Gigi’s wife, Marthe (Frederique Bonnal), who keeps the accounts, and a handful of other neatly drawn characters. Jean-Do is smitten with the still-mourning Lola.
Lola gets along well with her suave bank officer (Alain Lenglet), but the bank is threatening to foreclose on the garage because it’s three months behind on the mortgage. When one huge debtor, a shipping-container firm, declares bankruptcy (in a scheme to relocate and make ever greater profits), the crew at the garage is forced to take matters into its own hands.
In the framing movie, one of the screenwriters is always trying to interject crude expressions and more sex, but his partner reins him in. In a world where globalization and the tactics of big business make it harder to pinpoint “the enemy,” Guediguian’s mission is to entertain via a troupe of strong personalities who despise globalization and most definitely act locally, armed with a deadpan humor and some well-turned dialogue.
Like all of helmer’s work, visuals are steeped in the distinctive texture of working-class Marseilles. In one lovely bit, Jean-Do spies a Cezanne portrait of l’Estaque and opines, “We live in a masterpiece.” While “Charge!” is a far cry from Cezanne, it’s a pleasant series of sketches in which the hand of an artist is occasionally evident.