French filmmaker Robert Guediguian’s all-time favorite film must be Robert Altman’s epic portrait of country music and American life in the 1970s, “Nashville.” “The Town is Quiet” constantly references and riffs off themes introduced by Altman’s masterpiece, but the time intervening between “Nashville”‘s release and now, and the shift from Tennessee to France, make Guediguian’s film something rather different. It is not to say that “The Town is Quiet” ever truly breaks free of its influences; rather, the scope of the film it seeks to emulate is so large that this attempt becomes heroic rather than slavish. Even the film’s inability to live up to so large a predecessor is no cause for particular complaint; in my book, it’s always better to be partially successful at creating something than wholly successful at creating nothing. Unfortunately, most films fall into the latter category. “The Town is Quiet” strives toward greatness, toward a complete understanding of life in the roiling, unsettled, complex locale they call Marseilles, and its partial success must be applauded.
Now, on to the details. “The Town is Quiet” opens with a beautiful pan across the cityscape, its silence and stillness failing to reveal the turbulence lurking within. We are introduced to a number of characters, of different economic and social backgrounds, including Michele (Ariane Ascaride, the director’s wife), a haggled mother and factory worker, Yves and Viviane, a couple battling their way through a loveless marriage, and Abderahmane, a newly sprung convict looking to begin a new life. One of the quiet pleasures of “The Town is Quiet” is seeing how Guediguian has his characters interact, mingle, or just pass each other by. While it is true that this is a joy inherent to any large-canvas film, there is a certain fluency to the way Guediguian has this happen without calling any specific attention to it, or to his narrative’s self-consciousness. The narrative progresses on a number of fronts, focusing most intently on Michele’s nightmarish life, a blur of factory drudgery packing fish into boxes, and a home life dominated by the twin cries of her heroin-addicted daughter Fiona and infant granddaughter. Paul, a taxi driver who loses his license, and Viviane, a music teacher who is tempted to cheat on her husband, are other characters approaching turning points in their lives. What unites all the characters in “The Town is Quiet” is their sense of political hopelessness; an anguish that the system built to protect them no longer can. Guediguian sharply articulates the absurdity of a political situation in which many of the striking dock workers, long a bastion of radical left-wing ideals, has become majority right-wing, voting for the xenophobic nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front party. It is likely this aura of political frustration which inspired Guediguian to borrow so heavily from “Nashville”, which is immersed in the political dissatisfaction of 1970s America.
Still, the film is hardly without flaws. A number of prints of different lengths have been exhibited across the world, with the American print, at 127 minutes, approximately a half hour shorter than the longest extant copy. At this length, the film feels rushed at times, telling instead of showing, and certain strands of the plot seem unfinished. In particular, the budding romance between Abderahmane and Viviane feels particularly hasty. That in itself is a shame, in that the two actors give the finest performances in the film, with Alexandre Ogou reminiscent of a Gallic Tupac Shakur, all laughing eyes and brooding demeanor. And as good an actor as Ascaride is, the film simply spends too much time on her story, and bends under the weight of its repetitiveness. After a promising start, “The Town is Quiet” drags somewhat in the middle, before reviving for a truly electric last 20 minutes. In this finale, a number of characters lose their lives, others reveal surprising aspects of their personalities, for better and worse, and the city of Marseilles reveals itself as the true main character of the film, in all its beauty, complexity, and tawdriness. And as a surprising, touching coda, a tossed off detail from earlier in the film comes back, reminding us, with a tip of its hat to “Nashville”, that even in the face of tragedy, there is always music, and there is always the dream of a better future.