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Sweetness and Light:


À la place du coeur

(Robert Guédiguian, 1998)

This unassuming film has reservoirs of riches that have transfixed me three times now. I saw it initially at last year's Melbourne International Film Festival, and was immediately surprised and delighted by its sweetness and simplicity. A second viewing confirmed my feelings, but left me with doubts about its form. Now, third time around (but with a poor-quality print showing at the Lumiere, or a poor-quality projector/screen), its unwieldy form seems to have its own subtle, coherent logic, whilst the details of the story remain rich and moving (and, indeed, gain in intricacy).

The director, Robert Guédiguian, is noted for making films exclusively in Marseille and revolving around working class characters, but it is extremely limiting viewing his work through a social realist (or political) framework. The heavy-handed politicising that, for example, mar(k)s the films of Ken Loach, is missing here. I have the perverse feeling that Guédiguian could defect to the middle or upper classes and lose none of his worth. He is more interested in the bonds between people than their social or economic stations.

One of the striking characteristics of À la place du coeur is its lack of dramatics. I grant that there is a major conflict element built into the film at story level (the policeman, and the subsequent rape charge), but, for the main part, that stupid cinematic mode (so entrenched as a convention) of having characters "in conflict" is beautifully avoided (or, sometimes, subverted). Which is not to say, of course, that there is no "drama" or "story" on show, just that it is heavily nuanced and understated. (Quite likely too much so for most viewers. The Internet Movie Database has the film's genre listed as "comedy".)

Guédiguian is undoubtedly a humanist, the way he ties his characters together, but he is also a burgeoning formalist, judging by this film. His previous work, Marius and Jeannette (1997), has, for the most part, a loose, knockabout quality to it. I imagine his earlier films must also be "small" and "local", like Marius. À la place may eventually be seen as Guédiguian's turning point - it has an expanded canvas that is at once whole and multifarious. (His new film, La ville est tranquile (2000), has just premiered at Venice, and it reportedly has an even wider scope. It is 154 minutes long, and quite Magnolia-like.)

The director's formalism is at the service of his humanism, but it is clearly there. There is, above all, his interest in the human face. An interest that flourishes in À la place thanks to the extraordinary visages of Laure Raoust (playing Clim) and Alexandre Ogou (playing Bébé). Their simple but elegant faces produce sublime close-ups. But Guédiguian also gives the other actors, such as his regulars Ariane Ascaride (Marianne) and Jean-Pierre Darrousin (Joel), their cinematic due. He cares not in the slightest that their faces are rougher and older. And when one of their looks at each other is transformed into a once-only flashback, it is one of the film's many surprising highlights, containing a mysterious majesty and emotion to it that adds another layer to a film already multi-layered (and, my point: this is achieved thanks to a formal device).

Speaking of flashbacks, À la place has a complex structure which sees it traversing over several different timeframes. This is another way it de-dramatises the story, but it's there mainly to express the way human bonds are enhanced by time. The film begins near the end, and finishes in the past (but at a point "late" in the past). And point-of-view constantly shifts in the film - another aspect that is disorienting at first, but marvellously rich eventually.

In fact, Godardian elements abound: time and POV shifts as noted, handwritten words on the screen, the use of a ruminating voice over, Lizst nocturnes flitting in and out, and especially the expressionistic use of natural light within purely everyday contexts. Thus, we are presented with stunning back-lighting, high contrast, and sharp lines. (But, to mention again, the film looks murky and muted at the Lumiere currently. From memory, a different print screened at MIFF and the French Film Festival.)

This light illuminates a simple story, but one with many delightful and idiosyncratic details. Guédiguian's main flaw as a writer is his tendency to draw the main characters and plot situations with broad strokes. And so the policeman (Jacques Pieller) is a singularly "evil" presence; the rape situation is never seen, simply functioning schematically as a plot device; and the inherent "goodness" of Clim and Bébé's families is never questioned. But within that, Guédiguian plays around and comes up with some nice touches.

For example, Clim is drawn as a simple, sweet 16-year-old, but as she walks the streets of Marseilles worried about Bébé, she displays a quiet maturity and inner fortitude that are quite heartening (especially after experiencing the "maudit" teens in a film such as Bad Company [Jean-Pierre Ameris, 1999], for example). As for her love with Bébé, the film presents it as a given, but it resonates magically: their "first time" is represented by certain pre and post coital maneuverings that are pure corn, but which succeed wonderfully thanks to the director and actors. (In the best review I've read of the film, Anthony Carew calls this sequence "astonishingly tender", and I fully agree!) (Anthony Carew, "À la place du coeur", Beat, August 30, 2000.)

Guédiguian is at home with both masculinity and femininity. The men are presented as not only tender, caring and sensible, but also proud, boisterous and violent. They have their own "secret men's business" to attend to, just as the women have theirs. And yet, here's the beauty, the men and women bond magnificently in this world that Guédiguian creates.

If you don't give this film some tender slack, then a lot of what's on show will appear sentimental or clumsy. Disney-like homilies appear regularly throughout the film ("we must take care of each other", "this is for you", etc.), but there are also numerous unusual and poetic ideas offered ("we followed each other's legs up the stairs", "men laugh from their balls"). Or take the birth scene, for example. There is no "wonder-ful" close-up of the newborn as there is in Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom, 1999), but a jarring juxtaposition of Bébé's sculpture-chiselling with Clim's birth-agonies. (Guédiguian uses the chiselling sound elsewhere too, associatively, in a way that recalls the subtlety and evocativeness of atmos usage in the soundscape in Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us [1999].)

But the absence of a "baby shot" at the conclusion of À la place is not surprising given Guédiguian's obviously expansive humanity. The way the film weaves backwards and forwards in time clearly suggests that the life-force on show is malleable and eternal. For the last shot, we are taken back to a moment in the lives of Clim and Bébé as children. It is a moment comprising of a kind of symbolic pledge. They leave the frame and the camera holds on the corner of a building, its solid stone. A fitting conclusion to a beautifully flowing film.

© Bill Mousoulis September 2000
This review first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.9, Sep-Oct 2000.