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The World of Robert Guédiguian

A la place du coeur
Ariane Ascaride and Jean-Pierre
Darroussin in la place du coeur

To celebrate the release of French cinéaste Robert Guédiguian's new film La Ville est tranquille (2000) in Australia, the Alliance Française in association with Gil Scrine Films presented a mini-retrospective of the director's work in Sydney (Chauvel and Valhalla Cinemas) and Melbourne (Lumière Cinema) in early October. Alongside the new film, Guédiguian's previous four films were screened: À l'attaque! (2000), À la place du coeur (1998), Marius et Jeannette (1997), and À la vie, à la mort! (1995). There are another five titles previous to these in his oeuvre (see filmography below), but it is these late '90s works that have brought Guédiguian international success and recognition.

Guédiguian was born in 1953 in L'Estaque, Marseilles, to an Armenian father and German mother. He studied sociology in Paris, where he accidentally came into contact with the world of film, but for the last 20 odd years he has lived and worked exclusively in Marseilles. This in itself is not an unusual fact, but because he always uses a particular troupe of actors (which includes his wife) and consciously “locates” his stories in his beloved city, he has come to be defined as a local, “Marseilles” filmmaker.

And indeed, watching these five recent films of his, one receives an acute and rich portrait of the city and its inhabitants, a portrait encompassing many different elements: the political, social, philosophical, psychological and emotional. In fact, Guédiguian's range is so wide that it is quite accurate to characterise the world of Marseilles that he presents as a microcosm of the entire world. At the very least, one can quite clearly see universal themes in his films, if filtered through the particulars of Marseilles.

It is not surprising, therefore, that these five films are all quite individual, each having a particular flavour, or set of flavours. Guédiguian is not afraid to experiment with genre or tone, and sometimes he will alter the form or style even within individual films (for example, the fight sequence in Marius et Jeannette). Watching any of his films, the first impression one gets of his directorial manner is that it is very relaxed. For the uninitiated viewer, this means that the pace is unhurried, with the drama somewhere below the surface. For the initiated viewer, Guédiguian's style creates a deceptively inventive cinematic space – open and plain, it allows for interesting incisions (of emotions, or other details) and other unusual juxtapositions (for example, the way Ariane Ascaride's moped swerves out of control after her brush with the law in La Ville est tranquille).

Quite clearly, there is nothing rigid about Guédiguian's mise en scène. He seems to work intuitively, and collaboratively – he can capture Marseilles' various locations (the docks, apartments, city streets) without diminishing the presences of the characters. He seems very aware of the qualities his actors bring to the films.

For example, he uses close-ups rarely, but they are particularly appropriate, and also very strong, when he does use them (Ariane in Ville when at her door absorbing Jean-Pierre Darroussin's sex offer, or Laure Raoust and Alexandre Ogou in À la place du coeur when looking at each other with love in prison).

The actors are very important to these films. When one enters the world of Robert Guédiguian for the second or third time, and sees the same actors, one feels that thrill of recognition, and it then becomes fascinating simply watching the actors “playing” different characters. But something else, something quite profound, also arises out of this musical-chair play-acting: the sense that bodies are receptacles for all manner of life forces to pass through. The more films Guédiguian makes, the more he becomes a chronicler of life, the universe, everything.

Ariane Ascaride, Gérard Meylan and Jean-Pierre Darroussin are the key players here, but there are over a dozen in total in the troupe, and the contributions of the younger members such as Alexandre Ogou or Véronique Balme are now proving significant. Guédiguian has already masterfully grasped the opportunity of using Véronique Balme as a young Ariane (in Ville), and one can only imagine what narrative concoctions are coming in the films ahead. And Ville and À la place du coeur cleverly use excerpts from the director's previous films as flashbacks. (Maybe a Proustian/Once Upon a Time in America type film will appear one day from Guédiguian – and all without the aid of prosthetics or make-up!)

As mentioned above, each of these latest five films (I haven't seen the first five) has its own flavour, its own unique style and worldview (but with cross-overs to the other films, of course). À la vie, à la mort! is the one film of the group that most closely resembles a conventional character drama (as we've come to know from French cinema). But even it has Guédiguian's trademark warmth and empathy for the characters, and a kind of down-beat but hopeful sensibility (it swims in the waters of unemployment and drug-addiction, like Ville, but the characters' sense of community keep them afloat).

Marius et Jeannette is the loveliest of the five films, and was a deserved commercial success. Whilst still very realistic, it is in the form of a fairytale, with hints of romantic comedy. Gérard Meylan's disappearance two-thirds the way through the film acts as a dark counterpoint to the loveliness on offer, and sets up a moving conclusion.

À l'attaque! is similarly quite light and optimistic, but its overarching formal device (of the story being “framed” by two scriptwriters visualising it) undermines the integrity of the themes. It's clearly Guédiguian's weakest film (with a fantasy bordello sequence that is disgraceful, recalling the equally ugly nightmare scene in À la vie, à la mort!), and at worst seems like a commercial buffer to the severity of the next film, La Ville est tranquille.

Due to its emphasis on wide shots and location shots, Ville is muted or distanced at times, but it is still a powerful multi-character film, full of imaginative sidebars (Gérard Meylan's fascination with Véronique Balme, for example) and tough-love extremities (Ariane Ascaride's situation with her daughter). It is a sprawling, ambitious and brave work, with a sparse but effective soundtrack, and a bleak sensibility occasionally (the irony of the last scene).

My favourite of the films, however, is À la place du coeur, which breaks Guédiguian's rule of his films being either light or dark, this one clearly somewhere inbetween. It's an acutely spiritual film, mainly because of Laure Raoust's presence, her visage qualifying her as a 21st century Falconetti. Or maybe I like this film so much because it was the first Guédiguian film I saw. And surely only great directors can have such an effect. (See my review of Place.)

Robert Guédiguian himself was in Australia for the retrospective of these five films, and I caught up with him for this interview. (October 4, 2001)

BM:    Your last two films, Marius et Jeannette and À la place du coeur, are both very sweet and life-affirming. And so watching your new film La Ville est tranquille, which has a desperation to it, is both shocking and exciting. Do you feel you're breaking new ground with this film, or is it just a re-working of themes you've explored before (in your early films, for example, which I haven't seen)?

RG:    No, this film is nothing new, I have made some dark films before. And I consider that the two forms of narration, of telling a story, tragedy and comedy, are equally important. I don't want to work in just one of these registers – I want to work in both of them, I will always use both of them in my work.

When presented with the harshness of life, or difficult social or political problems, is it more valuable, as a film-maker, to be positive and make uplifting films, or to be critical, and present the problems as realistically as possible?

Uplifting films are more successful at the box office, but there is also a need to work with darker material, to present something different. You cannot speak of only the one side – both sides are needed to get the full message across.

I'm thinking in particular of a film such as Pasolini's Salò, which, in the end, is a provocative political act, trying to change things.

Salò is a very special case, even within Pasolini's work. Actually, it's not even a film that can be seen, or watched. It's a magnificent film intellectually. It proved that you cannot represent evil. The film-maker was courageous enough to make a film that you cannot really watch. It's a unique case.

The portrait of Fiona in Ville is one of the best portraits of a junkie I've seen on the screen. And having her as a baby, screaming and crying on the bed, is an act of genius. But I'm wondering – if one extends that baby analogy, then one can say that babies eventually stop crying and grow up. Is the mercy killing of Fiona the only possible solution for her?

The grandmother makes a choice – of the baby over her daughter. She chooses to raise the baby herself. She chooses life, the future.

But she's not concerned about her daughter? Doesn't she want her daughter to live?

It's because the situation is quite impossible – at that point she just believes that her daughter has to be sacrificed, so that the baby can be raised properly and live.

How have audiences responded to her killing?

Sometimes they are very shocked, because it's one of the most terrible acts you can do. But they are also moved at the same time.

The film is full of despair and people not being able to overcome their problems, but the story of Vivien and Abderramane is the opposite – they are able to solve their problems, and connect with each other in a loving way. Their story, however, gets swamped by the other stories. Do you feel you could have given it more screen time, and have it function as the “hope” in the film, rather than the boy and the piano symbolising the hope?

I agree with your assessment of these characters, but I think that films have to go to extremes. So in a dark film, you cannot have too much hope. You have to portray things intensely and excessively, in order to get a reaction from audiences. Films have to be white or black. In this sense, we can say that no film is really “realistic” – because in reality there is despair and hope at the same time, always.

I really love the sub-plot of Gérard, of a man haunted by the past, and I think Gérard Meylan is superb in the role. Just a silly question: where is that extraordinary flashback from? One of your very first films?

Yes. It's a scene from my first film, from 1980. Same actors, 19 years earlier.

Many times in the film, you cut unexpectedly to the characters' legs (mainly when they're stationary). What's the significance of this?

The film could have been called The Legs of Michèle, actually! I like the legs of women in general. Because her character is like the archetypal mother, I needed to find something in her, her behaviour or physique, which was not too “motherly”. Which makes her character multi-sided.

But the focus on legs happens with other characters too.

Sometimes I focus on a physical gesture, to characterise what the character is feeling, what is going on with them.

Like Paul's hand, reaching down to Michèle.

Yes, it can be the hands.

The way you present naked bodies is unusual and refreshing. There's Ameline undressing for Gérard, Vivien and Abderramane lying together, and other shots too. Can you talk a little about how you see the naked human form, how you're presenting it?

The best way to present people naked is simply, not worrying that they're naked. That's the ideal – to show people naked and to not even notice that they're naked, as if filming them fully dressed. What I mean is that the body shouldn't affect our understanding of the character, what he/she says or does.

The film's title is very interesting. You don't use music much in the film, so there is a very quiet, silent quality to everything. I was reminded of that famous phrase from the American writer Thoreau – “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Are you familiar with this phrase?

No, but I like it.

How did you come up with the title? What does it mean for you?

I first came up with the title, and then made the film. When you observe Marseilles from up high, you get the impression that the city is relaxed, calm, quiet. And in my imagination, when I see something that is quiet like that on the surface, I think that underneath there must be a lot happening. Actually, this ties in with my own perception of sound in cinema. I think that sound in films doesn't have to be realistic. It has to have a purpose, a dramatic purpose. What I hate in films is when all the sounds are mixed-up – people speaking, a phone ringing, coffee machine going, etc. I don't like listening to all these at once.

Being a multi-character film, and also a film that tries to encompass both political and personal issues, it's a very ambitious work. Was there a longer version initially, and, if so, what parts were cut out?

Yes, there was a longer version initially, but I cut it down myself, so it was my own decision. Maybe 10 minutes.

I think at its first screening, at Venice, it was like that.

Yes, but I decided to cut it down.

Some scenes in particular, or just trimming what was there?

Yes, just little bits, with each character – I just thought that would be better.

In the end, are you totally happy with the film? Are there some aspects that you think don't work as well as they could have?

By definition, I'm never happy with my films. There are many moments, sequences, images, dialogues in Ville that I'm very happy with, that I'm proud of. But generally I don't look at my films in this way, I just go on to the next one.

And particular things you're not happy with in Ville?

There are two scenes that I don't find that good or successful. And they are essential to the film.

And you're not saying which ones?

Oh – it's not a secret to anybody! There's one scene where the three fascists are speaking together in a café, and the scene where the architect is with his secretary, just walking and speaking about his work.

Looking at your direction in the film, it's very relaxed and assured. Obviously you work with a troupe of actors who you know well, but is it also a lot of the same crew from previous films?

Yes. For a long time, many films.

The budgets of your films, I'm assuming, must be quite low. Is it easy to raise the money for them?

It's very easy at the moment. Because my last five films have been very successful in France, I can make a film whenever I want.


But it wasn't like this before!

Yes, I see in your filmography a bit of gap from the late '80s to mid '90s.

Yes, that's right.

I'm interested in your relationship to realism, which I think is a unique one. It's not a “graphic” realism, but still quite powerful, in a simple, unadorned way. Do you consider yourself a “realist”?

One could talk about this for hours. To be faithful to reality, cinema has to be realistic and not realistic. It has to contrive its reality. Sometimes it does this by being excessive, as I said before about portraying despair. If I had to present a truly realistic portrait of Marseilles today to an audience, I would have to combine Marius et Jeannette and La Ville est tranquille. But I have made them two different films. Showing both sides, but separately. So sometimes you need to heighten one part of reality, have a certain point-of-view, to get the point across.

But also, a lot of the time, you're not really “contriving” reality – what you're presenting is very real.

In the way characters play, work, the décor, that kind of thing, yes, it's realistic. But if at the end of a film I choose to kill off several of the characters, it's not really “realistic”. It's more like an opera.

Most people would consider your films as films about ordinary people, humanist films, but they wouldn't perceive you as a director interested in film form. Ville, however, has a fascinating form, and, rather than reminding me of films like Magnolia, I'm actually reminded of early '80s Godard films such as Sauve qui peut, Passion, Je vous salue, Marie, and also Michael Haneke's recent film, Code Inconnu. Do you consider yourself a “formalist”?

No. There are people who work in that way that I really appreciate a lot, but it's not what I'm interested in when I'm making films. By nature I prefer Godard to severe formalists, because I'm more disorganised, and I like people like Pasolini, Fassbinder, the kind of stylistic freedom they have. I like the formalists, but I couldn't work like that. Because, for some reason, I think that people who are very rigorous with form, and also people who in the same film mix different forms, that they do all that just to reassure themselves, because they are doubtful.

And I guess you must obviously feel their films are cold, not “human” enough?

Yes – there's distance in them.

In Marius et Jeannette and À la place du coeur, there's a warmth and compassion for the characters that reminds me of Jean Renoir. Do you like Renoir's films?

Yes. Toni especially I think is one of the most beautiful films in cinema history. It's actually set in Marseilles. What I like about Renoir is that he just loved what he was doing, all the time.

Do you know the work of Frank Borzage?

Yes, he's a great cinéaste.

You've mentioned Pasolini and Fassbinder in interviews. Are they the most important influences for you?

What I like about them is that they were people who spoke very loudly about themselves. And in speaking about themselves, they were able to in turn relate the stories of their countries. That's practically the ideal of art. And so I myself – I speak about things that are just my own specialised interests, yet they are interesting to a lot of people. With Pasolini and Fassbinder, it was like the stories of their own countries were incarnated into their own personal stories.

And any other directors that are important to you?

There are many, quite different ones. Ozu, Satyajit Ray, John Ford, Bresson, Buñuel.

I want to ask you about French cinema. It seems that France has constantly been a great film-producing country, with great films made in every decade during the past century. And today, for many cinephiles, the best films come from France, Iran and Korea. What is your view of French cinema today? Is it healthy?

I think it's very healthy right at the moment. There's a lot of variety, of genres, many different styles.

Still, I think that from where we sit, French cinema does character-studies especially well.


Do you feel connected to other French directors, such as Jacques Doillon or André Téchiné or Eric Rohmer?

Absolutely. For two years I was the President of the Society of Film Directors. It's difficult to single out any particular directors, however. I'm also a producer, so there are many directors I work with on that level. Because we are all of the same generation, it is difficult to speak about any of these directors with any perspective.

Do you see many films at film festivals yourself? Which films have impressed you in recent years?

In the last few years, I've been very impressed with the films of Kiarostami. I also really like Jane Campion's films like Sweetie and An Angel at My Table. And then there's Nanni Moretti, of course.

Getting back to yourself as a director, do you feel that with La Ville est tranquille you have achieved a breakthrough in terms of how you're perceived? Are critics now seeing you as a truly significant or important director?

I think that kind of recognition did happen before. With À la vie, à la mort! it happened. I know that some people think La Ville est tranquille or À la vie, à la mort! are more important than the others, but I'm not even thinking about that. I simply do what I can. If I started to think about how I'm perceived, it would create a blockage for me. It's best to just make the films.

Your next film, Marie-Jo et ses deux amours, at what stage is at currently?

Just two weeks ago the editing was completed.

Is it lined up for any festival?

If things go well, I hope to be in Cannes with it next year, for its first screening.

With thanks to interpreter Brigitte Auldy, Françoise Libotte and Jean-Philippe Bottin at the Alliance Française, Paul Coulter at the Lumière Cinema, and James Hewison.
Bill Mousoulis, October 2001
This review first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.17, Nov-Dec 2001.

Robert Guédiguian Filmography

1980: Dernier été

1985: Rouge midi

1985: Ki lo sa?

1989: Dieu vomit les tièdes

1992: L'Argent fait le bonheur

1995: À la vie, à la mort!

1997: Marius et Jeannette

1998: À la place du coeur

2000: À l'attaque!

2000: La Ville est tranquille

2002: Marie-Jo et ses deux amours