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aka - Ville Est Tranquille, La
France 2000
Directed by
Robert Guediguian
133 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

The Town Is Quiet

Synopsis: Michele (Ariane Ascaride) works at night in a fish market to support her teenage daughter, a single mother unsuccessfully trying to kick her drug habit. Michele turns to prostitution to get the money she needs to buy drugs for her daughter from shady bar-owner (Gérard Meylan), who has his own secret agenda but the only client she can find is Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a former docker who broke union ranks, took redundancy and now drives a cab but is chronically unable to manage his own life.

If from the title you were to expect a pleasantly picturesque filmic outing you'd be sorely disappointed. The town is Marseilles, France's major seaport, as is common with such places, long notorious as the home of graft and corruption. Moreover, in the face of globalisation, sea trade has declined and unemployment soared. Prostitution and drugs are as common as flash cars and property developers as we delve into the world of France's New Prosperity as experienced by a disparate but intersecting group of Marseillais.

The title, then, is ironic and perhaps refers to the "quiet before the storm". Guédiguian"s statement is, however, as much philosophical as political. Whilst caustically observing real social injustice he is profoundly and sadly aware of the contradictions of life. One of the achievements of this film is the way it moves effortlessly between the explicit facts and their implied meaning without ever being tendentious. Reminiscent of the 1999 Cannes Palme D'Or winner Rosetta and Matthieu Kassovitz's 1995 La Haine, both of which were "social-conscience" films dealing with people on the margins of society, this film has a much broader canvas, weaving together many more story lines. The result is not only cinematically more engaging but, for the finesse with which it is done, even more commendable.

Not that everyone is going to like this. For some because of its content, for others because of its tone. Be prepared, there is no laughter here, there are no entertainingly light-hearted flourishes, and it is long (132 minutes). The film is parenthesized by a positive point of view, but what lies within those parentheses, is unrelentingly dour, if not downright bleak. But what there is is deep commitment realised by a skilfully-wrought script (Guédiguian is also credited as co-writer) and great performances. Ariane Ascaride, the director's wife, is compelling in the principal role but the entire cast, most of whom are Guediguian regulars, works brilliantly and with a palpable sense of conviction.

Some will criticise the film for conflating realism with some rather too convenient, even sensationalist, narrative developments but as with Ken Loach and Mike Leigh this is the completely understandable strategy that socially-committed directors now adopt to gain audiences. Although not strictly a "realist" film, La Ville Est Tranquille will make you feel the reality behind its fiction and that reality is, unfortunately, always tragic.




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