Robert Guédiguian’s new film "The Town Is Quiet" ("La Ville est Tranquille") was inspired by a memory of Marseille.
"There is a hill in Marseille with a basilica that overlooks the whole town," Mr. Guédiguian said recently, speaking in French at his production office here. "In the evening, standing there, with the city slowly becoming more quiet, it’s easy to imagine that people are peacefully going home. But I’ve always been haunted by the thought that underneath that apparent tranquillity lurk things that are dangerous and frightening, that could in a moment catch fire. I wanted to talk, in this film, of all the things that make me afraid."
In the devastating tapestry that Mr. Guédiguian creates in "The Town Is Quiet" — his 10th film, opening in New York on Friday — his native Marseille, an unquiet, rough-and-tumble seaport on the French Mediterranean coast, becomes a symbol of a far more universal urban unrest.
Michèle (played by the actress Ariane Ascaride, Mr. Guédiguian’s wife) unloads fish on the docks at night so that by day she can take care of her unemployed husband, her drug-addicted daughter and her baby granddaughter. Michèle has two unlikely allies: a sinister bartender (Gérard Meylan) and a taxi driver (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who is a disillusioned former union man. Meanwhile, in a high-rise building not far from Michèle’s, a young, black ex-convict (Alexandre Ogou) preaches peace to his angry friends. But his voice becomes increasingly drowned out by the racist propaganda of the far-right party, the National Front.
For Mr. Guédiguian (pronounced gay-dee-GYAHN), such social ills stem from a common root. "Most of these characters, no matter what their milieu, have no real concept of the world," he said. "They go step by step, struggling, without thinking of the big picture. They have lost their sense of direction and their beliefs. But how can one live without some plan, some sort of hope for the future?"
Mr. Guédiguian asks these questions but doesn’t pretend to have answers. One of the most politically engaged filmmakers working in France today, he is a former Communist who still maintains a strong, if troubled, idealism. Not that his vision is always grim. The film that made his reputation in 1997 was the surprise hit "Marius and Jeannette," a mature love story that is as sunny as "The Town Is Quiet" is dark.
Though all his films are set in Marseille and focus on the working class, Mr. Guédiguian has reached a new level with "The Town Is Quiet." "I think this is the film of Guédiguian’s which has the broadest and most generous vision of Marseille and of French society," said Richard Peña, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which showed the movie earlier this year. "Generous in the sense that his characters may be in trouble but they have their reasons. He’s conscious of cinema as a social tool, but I don’t think he’s a filmmaker who’s pushing an agenda. His agenda is to make people reflect."
In person, Mr. Guédiguian, who is 47, is warm and unaffected, sporting an aureole of brownish curls and an unabashed Marseillais accent even after 25 years in Paris. He has a quiet authority, which surfaces as he gives a tour of Agat Films & Company, an unusual collective of six producers, including himself. The company, which he helped to shape, has produced several recent French hits, among them Tonie Marshall’s "Venus Beauty Institute."
Mr. Guédiguian’s current standing is a far cry from his early days. Then, he said, "I produced my own movies because nobody else wanted to." But even now he insists on a home-movie ethic. He has written his last six films with Jean-Louis Milesi and has shot all of them using the same small group of actors, including his wife, Ms. Ascaride; Mr. Darroussin, and Mr. Meylan, a childhood friend who is not a trained actor but a night nurse in a Marseille hospital.
"Whereas I once played a 28-year-old man in Robert’s films, now I play a 48-year-old man," Mr. Meylan said, speaking on the phone from Marseille. "Robert is quite unique in that he uses the same actors as tangible witnesses to the passage of time, somewhat as Fassbinder did."
The fact that he has worked with the same actors has also made Mr. Guédiguian’s films a kind of larger chronicle. "Robert’s films have become the history of a particular generation in France," said his fellow Agat producer Yvon Davis. "This is a generation that had tremendous ideals, that participated in the events of 1968 in France, but that also partook of the subsequent disillusionment."
Mr. Guédiguian’s films start always from the personal. "I talk of Marseille because I was born there, and because its colors and its landscapes are my language," he said. "As Chekhov said, if you want to talk of the whole world, talk of your village."
Though his style is realistic, he insists on his films’ being extreme. "My films are either comedies or tragedies," he said. "I don’t think you should mix the two registers. You have to go to the depths of each one, like opera: only in that way can you move the audience."
This leads to some shocking moments in "The Town Is Quiet." In one, Michèle, driven to distraction by the simultaneous crying of her daughter and her granddaughter, warms milk for the baby while she heats up heroin in a spoon for the baby’s mother.
Ms. Ascaride’s bravura performance as Michèle is the heart of the film. "I think Robert has always been fascinated by two types of women: Mary Magdalene and Mother Courage," Ms. Ascaride said by telephone from Paris. "But Michèle is the most complex and ambiguous character that Robert has ever called upon me to play. She is someone who is constantly fighting for survival."
Ms. Ascaride, who went blond for the role, was afraid when she first read the part. "I said to myself, `My God, how can I make her sympathetic?’ " she recalled. "The only thing I can liken the experience to is bungee-jumping. I had to throw myself into the void."
On the set, Mr. Guédiguian works with his actors intuitively. "He doesn’t talk much and gives few directions," Ms. Ascaride said. "At the same time, he is very open to whatever ideas we have for the characters."
One of his goals is to make his characters human, whether they be heroes or villains. "Rather than just dismissing people who are racist, I wanted to show why they get the ideas that they do," he said. His concern with the working class stems from his own background. "I try to speak for my father, for the world that I grew up in," he said.
Mr. Guédiguian’s father, who worked on the docks in Marseille, is of Armenian heritage; his mother is German. He grew up in the mixed neighborhood of L’Estaque. "It was a communal atmosphere because it was the Mediterranean and we were always outside," he said. "And it was a Communist neighborhood, so I was militant from a young age."
He went to the University of Aix-en-Provence to study sociology. There he met Ms. Ascaride, a fellow student, when she came to one of his classes to speak on behalf of the student union. They married in 1975, and Mr. Guédiguian followed Ms. Ascaride to Paris, where she studied at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts. Then, in 1979, an acquaintance asked him to collaborate on a screenplay.
Mr. Guédiguian found that he liked to write and so, with another friend, Frank Le Wita, he wrote his own film, "Last Summer" ("Dernier Été"), a melancholy look at a group of young Marseillais friends. Mr. Guédiguian scraped together enough money to direct it and was stunned when the film was chosen to play out of competition at the Cannes International Film Festival.
Encouraged, he directed a second film, "Rouge Midi" (1983), a historical saga of a working-class family in Marseille. But he found it hard to find financing for his next two films, "Ki Lo Sa?" (1985) and "Dieu Vomit Les Tièdes" (1989), neither of which was released in the United States. These films, which deal with lost illusions, mirrored his own spiritual crisis at the time. "I had lost faith in the French Communist party," he said, "and I didn’t see what I could do in order to fight any more."
HE found an answer with his first comedy, "Money Makes Happiness" ("L’Argent Fait le Bonheur," 1992), a wry tale of inner- city youngsters who try to combat injustice by stealing from the rich. "I realized in my own life that little victories could count," he said, "and I wanted to start making films that would hearten people."
In 1996, after shooting another drama, he decided to make an informal comedy, "Marius and Jeannette," set partly in a friend’s courtyard in Marseille. The film, which is about a middle-aged security guard who falls in love with a feisty mother of two, and which stars Mr. Meylan and Ms. Ascaride, became one of the most successful French films of 1997.
"Marius and Jeannette’s" charm includes the occasional sly tribute to Marcel Pagnol, the great playwright-director who glorified Marseille before the Second World War. "Pagnol is an unavoidable, if overpowering, father figure," Mr. Guédiguian said. "For my first films, I tried to stay far away from him. With my comedies, however, I thought it would be amusing to do certain sequences in the manner of Pagnol, very colorful, but have my characters talking about thoroughly modern political issues."
Since his success with "Marius and Jeannette," Mr. Guédiguian has directed and released three more films in rapid succession. But "The Town Is Quiet" is his most ambitious film, and one that seems to indicate a new direction for him. "I’ve always dealt with the idea of community in my films, but here I deal for the first time with solitude, with the absence of community," he said.
He has taken this concern with solitude even further in a film he finished shooting this summer, "Marie-Jo and Her Two Loves" ("Marie-Jo et ses Deux Amours"). It is the tragic tale of a woman who loves two men and cannot choose between them. "I think for the first time I’ve left political and social issues aside to concentrate more on my characters’ private lives," Mr. Guédiguian said.
When asked whether doing something different makes him nervous, he laughed. "Yes, it does," he replied. "But I think fear is part of the satisfaction of taking risks. If I didn’t find things to do that frightened me, I would stop making films."