Labor of Love

Robert Guediguian's Marius and Jeannette invents its own genre -- the left-wing working-class romantic fairy tale. This French import succeeds so well, and so charmingly, you'll wonder why somebody didn't try the formula sooner. (Of course, maybe they did, and their efforts simply never reached our distant shores.) It also serves as a corrective to the interesting but icy French fare we've gotten in recent years, in which emotionally crippled men played by Daniel Auteil seem to have no interest in women as beautiful as Emmanuelle Beart. I was beginning to worry that the French were bored with love.

The Jeannette (Ariane Ascaride) of the title is a checkout clerk at an Auchan-style megastore. She's maybe in her forties and is certainly rough (that is, working-class) around the edges. She can't stop protesting what she sees as her job's inhuman working conditions, such as chairs she claims the company might have bought at a going-out-of-business sale at Auschwitz. She refuses to sit up straight in the one assigned her, even though she's risking her manager's wrath and, therefore, her job. Even though she has two kids at home, a very Gallic and beautiful teenage daughter, and a very North African, very intelligent Muslim younger son. The beauty's father abandoned the family.

Later, the Muslim child's father was killed by a falling scaffold when he went out for cigarettes. So the burden of their upkeep is squarely on Jeannette's shoulders, but still she can't keep her mouth shut. The day the hated manager finally fires her, she commandeers the store's PA system and mockingly urges the shoppers to load up their shopping carts with even more crap.

But just as hard times hit, an angel appears in the form of the sad, lame and handsome Marius (Gerard Meylan), a guard at the nearby abandoned cement factory, a post-industrial ruin which the film presents as emblematic of the sorry state of worker's rights in today's downsized France. Jeannette and Marius's relationship suffered a rocky start. He ran her off when he caught her trying to pilfer two cans of the cement plant's forgotten paint. (She wanted to touch up her fading tenement apartment.) But now he shows up with those same cans and wants to paint her flat.

Jeannette is attracted to the big, craggy guy. Even as he evicted her from the cement plant, she fantasized about winding up face-against-face with him. But she's been manless for eight years and is afraid to start all that again. (Marius has his own tragic story, which Guediguian cunningly withholds until near the film's end.) When Marius assures her that he's only there to paint and not score with her, she lets him in, and their relationship begins ambling toward fruition.

Not that Marius and Jeannette is simply a love story. Once Guediguian (who also wrote the screenplay, along with Jean-Louis Milesi) gets his couple together, he widens the story to include Jeannette's children and, more importantly, her tenement neighbors.

These folks are poor, but they have both style and stories, and they know how to live. There's the lusty pensioner (Pascale Roberts) who remembers humping her way to concentration camp survival (she was there as a young Communist, a group the Nazis and their sympathizers weren't as eager to kill as they were the Jews). There's the retired teacher and very active philosopher (Jacques Boudet) who's in love with the survivor and wants to marry her rather than just sleep with her when the mood strikes (her). There's the leftist woman (Frederique Bonnal) who calls an impromptu tenement council to discuss the horror of the day -- Fidel Castro has donned a business suit and has come begging for French money. And there's her rather sweetly dimwitted husband (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who will never be forgiven for having once voted right-wing (Marseilles, the film's setting, is a hotbed for Jean le Pen).

The communal life of the tenement gets almost as much screen time as does the title characters' romance. This is part of Guediguian's intent in making the film, which he dedicates "to thousands of unknown workers." He wants to show that even during hard times, the working-class instinct for sticking together leaves its members emotionally richer than the sentimentally impotent bourgeoisie.

The filmmaker makes his point explicitly when Marius takes Jeannette to a restaurant expensive enough to make her nervous, and they overhear the banal money-talk that serves as foreplay for the yuppie couple at the next table. But though Guediguian is very clear (if not exactly tough-minded) in his social preferences, the film is not ideologically oppressive. Frank Capra is this ex-communist's filmmaking hero, and It's a Wonderful Life's themes of love and community fit this film rather snugly.

The story's two elements, the political/communal and the romantic, combine when Marius mysteriously disappears, and the neighbors have to console Jeannette and finally seek to understand -- and correct -- the big hulk's mysterious ways.

The film is sometimes not as charming as its makers seem to think, but the false or cloying passages don't last long, while its strengths linger in the mind. The players are very engaging, especially the leads. As Jeannette, Ascaride (the director's wife) has her abrasive but vulnerable character nailed, and she well deserved the Cesar (the French equivalent of Oscar) she won for the role. Even better is the soulful Meylan as Marius. According to the press kit, Meylan is both the childhood friend of Guediguian and a full-time nurse who makes films in his off time. The three, director, actor and actress, work together frequently. I would gladly watch them go at it again.

Marius and Jeannette.
Directed by Robert Guediguian. With Ariane Ascaride, Gerard Meylan, Pascale Roberts, Jacques Boudet and Jean-Pierre Darroussin.



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