Lacking the political and social undercurrents that have enriched his best films, most notably his last one, “La Ville est Tranquille” (1999), “Marie-Jo and Her 2 Loves” finds Marseilles-based autuer, Robert Guediguian, in a rather mellow mood. Exquisitely made pic centers around the age-old dilemma of a character in love with two people at the same time, which gives many opportunities for richly layered performances from members of the director’s stock company. Most notable is the radiant Ariane Ascaride, who portrays the eponymous protagonist, a woman who places her marriage in jeopardy when she embarks on an affair with another man. Despite the relative conventionality of the material, and a somewhat excessive running time, this sensual love story has definite arthouse potential internationally, with plenty of festival exposure also in the cards.
The setting for the unfolding drama is, per usual, Guediguian’s beloved city of Marseilles, but the multicultural backdrop (with inherent racial tensions) that was a feature of his earlier work, is almost invisible this time. Marie-Jo (Ascaride), a middle-aged but still attractive woman, lives with her husband, Daniel (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a builder, and their teenage daughter, Julie (Julie-Marie Parmentier) on the outskirts of the city. Very much in love with her gentle, kindly husband, Marie-Jo, who works as a driver for a local hospital and who also handles her husband’s accounts, has nevertheless taken up with Marco (Gerard Meylan), a ship’s pilot who lives the lonely life of a bachelor in a nearby apartment.
Establishing scenes depict Marie-Jo’s ability to live two lives without her family being aware of her duplicity. She visits Marco during the day for long afternoons of contented sex (pic contains a considerable amount of both female and male nudity), and he’s depressed and lethargic when she can’t join him. Otherwise, she spends time with Daniel, who treats her with great kindness and tenderness, even if the spark may have gone from the relationship. In a touching scene, he presents her with the small boat she always wanted as a birthday present.
But one fateful, rainy afternoon, while working on the rooftop of a building near Marco’s apartment, Daniel sees his wife, almost naked, on her lover’s balcony, and the awful truth becomes clear. Still, he says nothing, stoically hoping the affair will come to a conclusion.
About halfway through the film, Marie-Jo conspires to have the two men in her life meet when she persuades Daniel to take her, together with Julie and Julie’s boyfriend, Sylvain (Yann Tregouet), to the island where Marco sometimes stays. Daniel is immediately aware of the significance of this supposedly chance encounter, though Julie finds she has a common interest with Marco, who promises to lend her a book. Naturally, she turns up at Marco’s apartment to borrow the book one afternoon when her mother is there, and a distraught and humiliated Marie-Jo cowers, naked, in her lover’s bedroom while her daughter and her lover engage in small talk.
This is the final straw, and Marie-Jo decides she must leave home to live with Marco, even though she still adores Daniel. Julie is furious and judgmental, while Daniel is strangely accepting — at least for the time being.
Guediguian brings great tenderness to this familiar story of infidelity and indecision. His characters are painfully real, and he allows sympathy not only for the cuckolded Daniel, but also for the lonely Marco and, especially, the traumatized Marie-Jo, who, despite her apparent indulgence and faithlessness, suffers terribly and is really only happy when she’s making love to one of the two men in her life.
The basic story is also fleshed out with attractive incidental details, such as the family picnic that opens the film, a scene which already foreshadows tragedy to come as Marie-Jo fondles the serrated blade of a knife as she sits on a cliff-top above a glorious Mediterranean seascape.
Grounded by the beautiful central performance of Ascaride, “Marie-Jo and Her 2 Loves” is distinguished by a particularly fine cast. Darroussin perfectly conveys the pain and suppressed anger of Daniel, while Meylan, a less charismatic but still sympathetic actor, expertly imbues the qualities that makes Marie-Jo so attracted to him, and Parmentier shines as the shocked daughter who automatically sides with her father. In a smaller part, Jacques Boudet brings depth to the role of a sickly alcoholic who, despite his lack of personal hygiene, is one of Marie-Jo’s favorite patients.
Production is handsome, with Renato Berta’s camerawork providing sensual imagery of Marseilles and its environs. There is no music score, with the soundtrack consisting of excerpts from Schubert, Vivaldi, Mozart and some Louis Armstrong-Ella Fitzgerald standards.