Robert Guediguian’s films about the ethnically mixed working class of the bustling city of Marseilles have been attracting increasing attention, and both “Marius and Jeanette” (1996) and “A la Place du Coeur” (1998) have achieved successful arthouse runs in some territories. His new one, “The Town Is Quiet,” is similarly likely to find a small but appreciative audience, though its length somewhat mitigates against easy acceptance.
This is one of those rangy contempo dramas that examines the lives of a number of characters whose paths eventually cross. What adds considerable bite here is the director’s evident concern about rampant and growing racism in this multi-cultural mixing pot, which has reached the point where even young intellectuals are turning to the Right. With five main characters and several key minor ones to juggle, Guediguian’s seemingly sprawling but in fact quite precise pic takes a while to establish itself, but is eventually rewarding viewing.
Michele (Ariane Ascaride) works at night in a fish factory to support her unemployed husband and her teenage daughter, Fiona (Christine Brucher). Fiona, a hopeless heroin addict, has a 3-month-old daughter she can’t possibly support and has turned to prostitution to feed her habit. But she’s increasingly sick and, as she can’t kick the habit, her mother helps her by earning extra money from Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) for sexual favors to pay for the stuff, eventually even injecting her almost helpless daughter herself.
Paul used to be a dock worker, but, during a long strike, put his money into a cab. But he can’t pay his bills and eventually loses his license, although he’s unable to tell his affectionate parents about the fix he’s in.
Michele obtains the drugs for her daughter from Gerard (Gerard Meylan), who was her first lover. He now runs a small bar and is involved in all kinds of shady deals, including political assassination. He’s a tormented, solitary, angry man.
Abderramane (Alexandre Ogou) is a handsome African recently out of prison. He’s attracted to Vivienne (Julie-Marie Parmentier), a part-time social worker and wife of an arrogant, womanizing member of the chardonnay set. Vivienne despises her husband and claims to respect those poor people who vote for the Far Right rather than people like him who talk a lot about helping the poor with minimal results.
These characters, and others, live in an increasingly dangerous environment, where pent-up frustrations, the presence of drugs, the lack of employment and the racial mix all threaten the collapse of society. “The town may be quiet,” per the title, but it’s seething under the surface.
The director works with a stock company of actors, including Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Paul Darroussin and Gerard Meylan, who appear in most of his films. They inhabit the characters they enact here with the same kind of precision Guediguian brings to the material.
Candid in its examination of the roots of racism and violence, and candid, too, in its depiction of a mixed-race sexual relationship, the pic has been filmed in a gritty, grainy style on authentic locations.
Guediguian’s use of music is exemplary, and his sudden, unexpected inclusion of Janis Joplin’s “Cry Baby,” which pounds on the soundtrack during a key sequence, is extremely powerful. He also includes some Marseilles hip-hop.