Marius and Jeannette
1997, NR, 102 min. Directed by Robert Guédiguian. Starring Ariane Ascaride, Gérard Meylan, Pascale Roberts, Jacques Boudet, Frédérique Bonnal, Jena-Pierre Darroussin, Laëtitia Pesenti.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 4, 1998
Marius and Jeannette are not your average movie twosome. They are 40ish lovers whose faces are appealing though not gorgeous, whose bodies have been touched by middle-age spread and the slings of life's arrows, whose dispositions are individualistic and not looking to get hitched, and whose emotional histories are freighted with a lifetime of baggage. Come to think of it, they are your average twosome. It's just that, on average, these are not the kinds of romantic couples we generally find on the screen. This may partly explain the element responsible for making this French film such a sleeper hit in its homeland and why it's the first of director Guédiguian's seven films to be released on these shores. If this were filmed in Hollywood, the introduction of these characters would be staged as one of those “meet cute” situations that follow the standard footprints down life's bumpy though primrose path. But it's not. We're in Marseilles and the characters meet when Jeannette (Ascaride) steals some paint cans from the soon-to-be dismantled cement factory that Marius (Meylan) patrols as a security guard. Jeannette insults him and calls him a fascist, but nevertheless, Marius shows up at her door the next day with paint cans in hand ready to help her do her walls. OK, so it is kind of cute. But the thing is, Jeannette's walls really need the paint and Marius got to thinking about how the paint cans were really only going to the scrap heap anyway. From this beginning, a tentative love affair grows between this feisty single mother of two children (her first husband abandoned her, and the second was killed while on the way to the store for cigarettes by falling scaffolding) and this quiet working man who got his job by faking a limp. This is the Marseilles of vast unemployment, of crumbling factories and urban decay, yet in its own way a sun-dappled South of France town for lovers. Our first hint of this duality is in the film's opening shot as the camera pans the natural scenery with picture-postcard prettiness and continues its glide through the working-class neighborhood loomed over by the dilapidated and barren cement factory. The characters in Marius and Jeannette are its strongest selling point, however. There is a reality to them that transcends the parameters of the enclosed narrative. Jeannette's apartment shares a common courtyard with several neighbors and these characters, too, become part of the story. There's Caroline (Roberts), who sometimes tells stories of her days in the concentration camps and sometimes has companionable sex with her old friend and neighbor Justin (Boudet), a retired teacher who helps the neighborhood children with tough questions of religion and politics. The daily bickering between spouses Monique (Bonnal), a left-leaning activist and Dédé (Darroussin), who voted for the reactionary National Front, provide amusement for the whole courtyard and grist for the marriage. Jeannette's daughter wants to go to Paris to become a journalist, and her black-skinned son (by her second husband) has decided to observe Ramadan. Ascaride (who is married to director Guédiguian and has appeared in most of his pictures) won a French César for her work in this film, another indication of the resonance of these characters. Guédiguian has filmed all his movies in the streets of Marseilles and his familiarity and devotion to the locale serve him well. If the movie's concluding tagline that dedicates it to “the thousands of unknown workers” seems a little heavy-handed, it's only because that would have been evident without underscoring it so markedly. In Marius and Jeannette we find the familiar; it is a world that demands both bread and roses.