A Mother’s Courage in Marseilles Survives Loves and Woes

Robert Guédiguian’s

The Town Is Quiet ( La Ville Est Tranquille ), from a

screenplay by Jean-Louis Wilesi and Mr. Guédiguian, penetrates into several tormentedly

interlocking lives in the city of Marseilles, while retaining a scenic

perspective on a deceptively peaceful cityscape. In the process, many of the

contemporary problems of the Western

world-racism, drugs, economic injustice, abortion and anti-abortion-are given

unforgettably human faces. One has almost forgotten that a mere movie

can deal with serious political and social issues without sloganizing or dehumanizing its characters.

Michèle (Ariane Ascaride) is a blond woman in her late 30’s who is first seen working in a fish market in picturesque

fashion, tossing enormous fish from one watery venue to another. Her strenuous

labors in the market are nothing when compared to the stresses and strains

awaiting her at home. As she rides her motorbike from work across much of Marseilles,

she is on her way to becoming a recurring mobile figure in the teeming life of

the port city.

But at home, she is forced to confront a surly unemployed husband

on the dole; a promiscuous daughter, Fiona (Julie-Marie Pamantier),

hooked on heroin; and an infant granddaughter wailing fruitlessly for

nourishment until Michèle comes home and feeds the

child, without any help or even gratitude from the rest of her “family.” As if

this is not enough of an ordeal, Michèle is soon

forced into the position of securing heroin for her bedridden addict of a

daughter and even injecting the heroin herself, because her daughter’s hands

have become too shaky for the task. As Michèle

alternates between filling her granddaughter’s bottle with nutrients and filling Fiona’s veins with heroin,

she becomes a veritable Mother Courage of the fish markets.

One day, Michèle’s

path crosses that of Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin),

an ex-dockworker who has betrayed his striking co-workers by accepting the firm’s offer of

severance pay, with which he purchases a taxi. He encounters Michèle when she runs out of gas for her motorbike. He

gallantly siphons some fuel from his cab to help her get home and then follows

her, hoping to start a relationship.

At first, Michèle rejects Paul’s

advances, but after a time, and when the need for her daughter’s heroin becomes

truly desperate, Michèle prostitutes herself for Paul

and anyone else who is available. Her regular supplier is her childhood

sweetheart, Gérard (Gérard Meylan), who runs a small bar but has a sinister second

life. As the various characters enter the film, they introduce us to different

strata of society.

When Paul visits his retired

father and mother, he pretends that his business is going well and that he has found a serious

girlfriend. Actually, he has lost his cab license because of repeated meter

violations. He is thus stamped as a perpetual loser who lies to his parents,

and yet he ultimately emerges as a sympathetically supportive benefactor in Michèle’s desperate life. (Paul’s father happens to be a

disillusioned old Communist who can still sing every verse of “L’Internationale,” which he does, and which marks the first

time I have ever heard it sung in its entirety).

An interracial subplot is provided by Viviane (Christine Brüches), a music teacher estranged from her womanizing,

pseudo-liberal, upper-class husband, and Abderamane (Alexandre Ogou), an idealistic

young North African, just out of prison, who is one of her former students. The

politics here are very explicit, but the rhetoric engulfs the characters before

they can be developed as distinctive individuals. The melodramatic dénouement

seems flimsily contrived in this area, despite some interesting political views

of the French anti-immigration movement.

By contrast, the abortion issue bleeds out of the deepest

feelings of Michèle and Gérard

in their unfolded past. And when Michèle finally

cracks from all the fearsome pressures beating down on her, she and her

daughter experience a moment of spiritual epiphany that is guaranteed to stop

viewers in their tracks as they contemplate the many faces of love all the way

to the grave.

Lynch in La-La Land

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive ,

from his own screenplay, is hanging around as one of the most controversial

films of the year, which is to say that half the people I talk to who have seen

it like it, and the other half dislike it or even hate it. Mr. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive

shared the directorial Grand Prix at Cannes along with Joel Coen’s

The Man Who Wasn’t There , and observers

on the scene shrugged off the direction of

both films, as well as the films themselves, despite the fact that both

directors have  cult

followings in Europe.

As it turned out, when I

finally saw the two films here, I liked them both, but in different ways. Mr. Coen’s film has a beginning, middle and end, while Mr. Lynch’s work is really two different films tacked together

with many of the same actors and characters marching off in different

directions. The explanation for Mr. Lynch’s nonlinearity is quite simple. The first half of Mulholland Drive is the rejected pilot for

an aborted television series, and the

second half was shot as a regular Canal Plus project, with a more censorious

attitude toward the film industry in Los Angeles and the predatory creatures

grouped together under the code name “Hollywood.”

If that were all Mulholland Drive was about, the film could be

dismissed for its banality. Curiously, however, people I have talked to from

Los Angeles feel, as I do, that Mr. Lynch-far from condescending to La-La-Land

or condemning it-actually displays a degree of affection for this slice of

Americana, however garish or menacing it may seem.

When wide-eyed, blond Betty

(Naomi Watts) arrives at Los Angeles airport, bubbling over with optimism about

her chances of making it big as a movie star, the screen drips with an unfunny

irony because of the broadness of the approach. We soon recognize in Betty

the fabulous indestructibility and invulnerability

of the blessed innocent. Just before her arrival, a mysterious brunette (Laura

Elena Harring) miraculously escapes a mob hit through

a fortuitous traffic accident that leaves her would-be assassins dead. The

brunette finds her way down a hill and into a luxurious home lent to Betty by

her aunt. The brunette sees a poster of Rita Hayworth

in the house and adopts the name Rita because an attack of amnesia has deprived

her of her memory. Betty immediately resolves to help Rita find her true

identity.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lynch is busy inserting a series of bizarre incidents

such as Nathanael West at his most hallucinatory

could never have imagined. There is a dwarf, of course, here incarnated as a

movie mogul. Usually memorable character actors

like Robert Forster as Detective McKnight and Dan Hedaya

as a studio executive named Vincenzo come and go and

are never heard from again. There is a 2 a.m.

Mexican “concert” that makes Mr. Lynch’s Blue Velvet

(1986) look like the Grand Ole Opry. It is simply not

to be believed, and perhaps not even to be understood. An unexplained boogie

man pops out and in, causing a fatal heart attack for some unknown

character.

Into this maelstrom, Betty

and Rita bond as fearless searchers for the truth of Rita’s identity.

Betty’s path crosses that of film

director Adam (Justin Theroux) when she goes to the

studio for an audition that has already been fixed by the powers that be. Adam

is in every way a pathetic wretch, whose wife and pool-man lover have kicked

him out of his mansion. Eventually,

Betty and Rita discover Rita’s former

apartment and a dead body in bed to boot, which sends them screaming back to

Betty’s place. I’m not sure, but I think this is the end of the TV pilot.

What follows is a sizzling lesbian sex scene that looks more

Canal Plus than American television, even on the cable level. Rita has seduced

a willing Betty, and the relationship is tenderness itself. Then, suddenly, the

characters switch around, with Betty morphing into Diane, a hard-edged

leading-lady wannabe, and Rita morphing into capricious Camilla, the star who

barely tolerates Diane’s attentions as she flirts brazenly and publicly with

director Adam, who has become stronger and even more corrupt in the transition.

As Betty, Ms. Watts had already given intimations that there was something

smoldering under her sunshiny gee-whiz personality. Ms. Harring,

on the other hand, has a tough time making the leap from Rita to Camilla.

It all doesn’t add up very well, but Mulholland Drive is one of the very few movies in which the pieces not only

add up to much more than the whole, but also supersede it with a series of (for

the most part) fascinating fragments. From The

Straight Story (1999) and The

Elephant Man (1980) at an emotional peak, to the shaggy-dog strangeness of

the Twin Peaks

epics, Mr. Lynch remains our most inconsistent auteur, who always plays

entirely by his own rules.