Social Realism in Marseille

Robert Guédiguian's Marius and Jeannette

Marius and Jeannette

If Marseille had mostly inspired filmmakers looking for Mediterranean exoticism, the second half of the twentieth century saw the emergence of a social-conscious cinema capturing the essence of the city, rather than its appearance.

A social cultural melting-pot composed of contrasted neighborhoods, the southern city and its port became a source of social experiment for the filmmaker René Allio. Rather than going for a typical colorful angle, the director rather portrayed locals in a perpetual struggle, whether it’s emotional or against an environment they want to escape from. Providing an uncompromising look at the city. Mr. Allio always seemed torn between his love for Marseille and harsh criticism. While embracing the city’s beauty visually, he showed it as a troubled nucleus, whether it’s the youth going for criminal activities or adults living broken – professional and emotional –  lives, even flirting with self-destruction.

The adaptation of a Bertolt Brecht novel, La Vielle Dame Indigne (1965) is probably Mr. Allio’s most famous work, offering a metaphor about Marseille. In Retour à Marseille (1979) which stars Raf Vallone and Andréa Ferreol, he painted an ambiguous portrait of the suburbs while Pierre et Paul (1969) centers on a blue collar worker’s family and professional problems. With L’heure exquise (1980), the director offered his most nostalgic work, taking spectators on a guided tour of places associated with his youth,  from the Vieux Port to the Belle de Mai district.

Much more severe and corrosive, Paul Carpita’s representation of Marseille is miles away from Marcel Pagnol’s amiable world. The son of a docker and a fishwife, this political filmmaker made four movies about Marseille’s blue-collar world. Each of his movies features the port as a background and emphasizes the local diversity, whether it’s ethnical, social or cultural.  His most notable film, Le Rendez-vous des quais (1955) with Roger Manunta and Andre Maufray, was censured at the time for his controversial subject showing the two choices a socially disillusioned and broke young docker had: a humble life with the unions or an easier and more comfortable lifestyle through shenanigans. Marseille Sans Le Soleil (Marseille Without Sun – 1960) stood like an exercise and an anti-thesis of the Marcel Pagnol’s postcard-like vision. Tired of an image of Marseille drafted by Pagnol and idiotically generalized by the media, Mr. Carpita addressed these clichés, assimilating them to vulgarity. To do this, he took some iconic scenes from Marius such as the card game to denounce them, or deliberately distorted some of the city’s emblematic monuments such as the Notre-Dame de la Garde church. Closer to Le Rendez-vous des quais, Graines au vent (1964) described the daily life of the lower class while Adieu Jesus (1970) focused on immigrants.

Somewhere between Marcel Pagnol’s jovial cinema and Rene Allio’s social movies, Robert Guédiguian can be credited for Marseille’s onscreen revival. The son of blue-collar immigrants, he defines himself as a neighborhood filmmaker, most particularly describing L’Estaque’s bubbling life and microcosm (L’Estaque is a little port in Marseille).  From his political and family upbringing, he keeps a social consciousness that he applies to colorful portrays. While love and humor are usually at the center of his movies, he also always injects recurring themes in the background, from racism to politics, poverty, unemployment, disillusionment and drug. Mostly haunting his social-cultural stomping ground (L’Estaque) from Last Summer (1980 with Gérard Meylan & Ariane Ascaris) to ‘Til Death Do Us Apart (1995 ; Ariane Ascaride, Gérard Meylan) and his breakthrough Marius and Jeannette (1997 with Gérard Meylan & Ariane Ascaris), he also ventured in the projects as well as in the nearby hills and calanques with L’Argent fait le bonheur (1993 ; Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Marie-Jo and her Two Lovers (2001 ; Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin). In The Town is Quiet (2000 Ariane Ascaris, Jean-Pierre Darroussin), he brushed an unflattering portrait of his hometown at the turn of the century. With a critical but affectionate eye for Marseille, just like Marcel Pagnol, he formed a film family, surrounding himself with a group of regulars, including his wife Ariane Ascaris as well as Gérard Meylan and Darroussin.

At a more “confidential” level,  writer / director / actor Jean-Louis Comolli has been more interested in showing the political landscape of the city – and its surroundings – through a series of documentaries such as Rêves de France à Marseille (2002), Jeux de roles à Carpentras (1998), La Question des alliances (1997) and Marseille contre Marseille (1996).

Besides the massive body of work of these filmmakers, a few other movies have tackled similar themes, most particularly immigration and the suburbs.  One of the earliest is Jean Renoir’s Toni (1934 with Jenny Hélia & Charles Blavette) about a married Italian immigrant in love with a Spanish girl. More recent works include Bertrand Blier’s 1, 2 , 3 Freeze (1993 with Anouk Grinberg and Marcello Mastroianni) and Too Beautiful For You (1998 with Gerard Depardieu and Carole Bouquet) shot in part on La Corniche, a beautiful coastal neighborhood. Other works include the uneven Comme un Aimant (2000, starring Saleh Kamel and popular rap group IAM’s singer Akhenaton), Travail d’Arabe (2003; Christian Philibert, Mohammed Metina) and Claire Devers’ Les Marins perdus (2003; with Bernard Giraudeau & Marie Trintignant), the adaptation of a Jean-Claude Izzo novel about undocumented sailors stranded on the port.

Marius and Jeannette

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.