Flick Chick | Flick Chick | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published February 6, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Marseilles has always been a notorious city. In recent times, right-wing politicians, upscale developers and struggling immigrants have been added to the French seaport’s traditional mix of seafarers, prostitutes, gangsters and black-market profiteers. It’s also Robert Guediguian’s birthplace and, in The Town Is Quiet, the writer-director examines the myriad sorrows beneath its sun-drenched Mediterranean façade.

The inhabitants he depicts are all trapped in some way as their circumstances intersect and overlap. None of them is more tragic than Michele, whose chaotic home offers no respite from an arduous graveyard shift of packing fish in ice. As played with unflinching intensity by Ariane Ascaride — Madame Guediguian in real life — she is a woman utterly without illusions. Her daughter Fiona (Julie-Marie Parmentier) is the single mother of a baby girl, but shows no interest in the child. She’s too busy turning tricks in order to pay for her heroin habit.

Screening this weekend as part of the three-month World Cinema Series at Montpelier’s Savoy Theater, The Town Is Quiet includes an unforgettable sequence in which Fiona screams for a fix while the infant wails for a bottle of formula. It’s the breaking point for Michele, who is stretched to the limit by her efforts to nurture two needy generations.

Realizing that Fiona cannot be cured, Michele starts supplying the smack to protect her from painful withdrawal. To do this, she has to supplement her wages by joining in the neighborhood’s rampant sex trade, rationalizing that such self-sacrifice is somehow preferable to allowing the younger woman to whore. Michele’s estranged husband Claude (Pierre Banderet) has given up on the family, turned to booze and been swept up in the racism and nationalism of his fellow unemployed dockworkers.

Although this is hardly the feel-good movie of the year, Guediguian’s storytelling skills are persuasive enough to shed light on the grimmest scenarios. The craggy, mournful faces of his actors — Ascaride’s a weathered gamin — speak volumes in a minimalist production that values understatement and elliptical editing.

The amorous Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is obsessed with Michele, but, too repressed to woo her, becomes a steady customer instead. Also a dockworker, he has ditched the union to accept a buy-out before investing in a taxicab that’s partially financed by money borrowed from a mobster.

Michele’s reluctant drug dealer is the enigmatic Gérard (Gérard Meylan) — her guardian angel, yet a man consigned to his own private living hell. He broods while listening to Janis Joplin songs and moonlights as an assassin-for-hire.

One subplot follows an affair between Viviane (Christine Brucher), a middle-aged music teacher, and Abderamane (Alexandre Ogou), an African ex-con many years her junior. Their fates are inextricably linked to what the other lost souls choose to do in this documentary-style meditation on the not-so-silent agony of Marseilles.

down under Oceans away from southern France, Lantana does not paint a terribly upbeat portrait of Australia. The four married couples in Ray Lawrence’s acclaimed psychological thriller have problems galore, largely of their own making. What begins as a whodunit winds up revealing the dark, sad secrets of people unable to save themselves from anguish.

Despite early raves as the closing night selection at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Lantana surprisingly hasn’t appeared on many critics’ 2001 top-10 lists or generated much Oscar buzz for its gifted ensemble cast. Perhaps more high-profile hits, like A Beautiful Mind or Moulin Rouge, have eclipsed the drama from Down Under — which is scheduled to open in Vermont this week.

Barbara Hershey portrays Valerie, a therapist in Sydney whose marriage to an emotionally distant academic (Geoffrey Rush) has been troubled ever since the death of their young daughter 18 months earlier. One of Valerie’s patients, Sonja (Kerry Armstrong), has a philandering husband named Leo. Anthony LaPaglia gives a brilliant performance as this dour bloke, a police detective undergoing a particularly messy midlife crisis.

Separated from a husband who loves her, Leo’s lonely mistress (Rachael Blake), interferes, with dire consequences, in the lives of a less financially fortunate family next door. Virtually everybody in this picture passes on misery like a bad cold.

The noirish murder mystery, heightened by Mandy Walker’s insightful cinematography, begins with ominous opening shots: crickets chirping; a patch of lantana, its pretty pink flowers masking thorns, in forbiddingly dense underbrush; a bloody foot.

But Lawrence defies the limitations of the genre by presenting complex, entirely credible characters on a collision course with their own psyches.