Yet another cinematic roundelay that mixes together interlinking narratives featuring accidentally related characters like the different flavors in an ice cream swirl, but this time with a French accent. Robert Guediguian’s “The Town Is Quiet” is set in the port city of Marseille, and hones in on a variety of figures who interact with each other: an unhappily-married woman (Ariane Ascaride) whose junkie daughter (Julie-Marie Parmentier) is also an unwed mother, and whose husband (Pierre Banderet) falls in with some anti-immigration zealots; an ex-dock worker (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who’s borrowed money from his stridently socialist father (Jacques Boudet) to purchase a cab; a bar owner (Gerard Meylan) who apparently moonlights as an assassin; a young black ex-con (Alexandre Ogou); a left-wing politician (Jacques Pieiller) with a disenchanted wife (Christine Brucher) who works with mentally challenged youngsters; and a young Georgian boy (Julien Sevan Papazian) who plays classical tunes on an electronic keyboard in the park to get donations for a piano–among others. Scenes involving all of them are shuffled together to show how they meet and suffer their individual pains and losses, for though the concluding moments carry a wisp of optimism, suggesting that people of varying backgrounds can be brought together by music if nothing else, the overall message seems to be that misery is the likeliest lot of the common man in a society that permits, even encourages, poverty, intolerance and exploitation. Even the Schubertian melodies and snatches of Chopin that the silent young boy plays seem falsely uplifting against so grim a backdrop.
On the surface “The Town Is Quiet” may seem a sort of grim soap opera, but its narrative underpinning is basically social and political; the picture is a cinematic cry of despair at the rise of Le Pen and his crypto-fascist party in France, and at the utter failure of the left to confront his appeal to impoverished, lower-class citizens with much success. The theme that runs through the film, and on which all its threads converge, involves the plight of those in contemporary France who are either despised immigrants or natives who feel themselves displaced by them, and the abandonment of principle by supposedly progressive politicians in the face of the wave of hysterical intolerance that feeds on the country’s economic woes. At heart the picture is treatise clothed as drama (or, if you prefer, melodrama).
It’s that schematic quality which ultimately undermines the power of the film. Certainly it boasts some fine performances–Ascaride’s work is especially rich and full-throated, but Darroussin is nearly as convincing, and most of the supporting cast is at least adequate–and Guediguian evokes the atmosphere of the French equivalent of a decaying rust-belt town with considerable skill. In the final analysis, however, “The Town Is Quiet” is more successful as sociological argument than as cinematic narrative.