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Austin Chronicle Film Reviews

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998: 

MARIUS AND JEANNETTE

D: Robert Guédiguian; with Ariane Ascaride, Gérard Meylan, Pascale Roberts, Jacques Boudet, Frédérique Bonnal, Jena-Pierre Darroussin, Laëtitia Pesenti. (Not Rated, 102 min.)

Marius and Jeannette are not your average movie twosome. They are 40ish lovers whose faces are appealing though not gorgeous, whose bodies have been touched by middle-age spread and the slings of life's arrows, whose dispositions are individualistic and not looking to get hitched, and whose emotional histories are freighted with a lifetime of baggage. Come to think of it, they are your average twosome. It's just that, on average, these are not the kinds of romantic couples we generally find on the screen. This may partly explain the element responsible for making this French film such a sleeper hit in its homeland and why it's the first of director Guédiguian's seven films to be released on these shores. If this were filmed in Hollywood, the introduction of these characters would be staged as one of those "meet cute" situations that follow the standard footprints down life's bumpy though primrose path. But it's not. We're in Marseilles and the characters meet when Jeannette (Ascaride) steals some paint cans from the soon-to-be dismantled cement factory that Marius (Meylan) patrols as a security guard. Jeannette insults him and calls him a fascist, but nevertheless, Marius shows up at her door the next day with paint cans in hand ready to help her do her walls. OK, so it is kind of cute. But the thing is, Jeannette's walls really need the paint and Marius got to thinking about how the paint cans were really only going to the scrap heap anyway. From this beginning, a tentative love affair grows between this feisty single mother of two children (her first husband abandoned her, and the second was killed while on the way to the store for cigarettes by falling scaffolding) and this quiet working man who got his job by faking a limp. This is the Marseilles of vast unemployment, of crumbling factories and urban decay, yet in its own way a sun-dappled South of France town for lovers. Our first hint of this duality is in the film's opening shot as the camera pans the natural scenery with picture-postcard prettiness and continues its glide through the working-class neighborhood loomed over by the dilapidated and barren cement factory. The characters in Marius and Jeannette are its strongest selling point, however. There is a reality to them that transcends the parameters of the enclosed narrative. Jeannette's apartment shares a common courtyard with several neighbors and these characters, too, become part of the story. There's Caroline (Roberts), who sometimes tells stories of her days in the concentration camps and sometimes has companionable sex with her old friend and neighbor Justin (Boudet), a retired teacher who helps the neighborhood children with tough questions of religion and politics. The daily bickering between spouses Monique (Bonnal), a left-leaning activist and Dédé (Darroussin), who voted for the reactionary National Front, provide amusement for the whole courtyard and grist for the marriage. Jeannette's daughter wants to go to Paris to become a journalist, and her black-skinned son (by her second husband) has decided to observe Ramadan. Ascaride (who is married to director Guédiguian and has appeared in most of his pictures) won a French César for her work in this film, another indication of the resonance of these characters. Guédiguian has filmed all his movies in the streets of Marseilles and his familiarity and devotion to the locale serve him well. If the movie's concluding tagline that dedicates it to "the thousands of unknown workers" seems a little heavy-handed, it's only because that would have been evident without underscoring it so markedly. In Marius and Jeannette we find the familiar; it is a world that demands both bread and roses.

3.5 stars

Marjorie Baumgarten



PLUMP FICTION

D: Bob Koherr; with Tommy Davidson, Julie Brown, Paul Dinello, Sandra Bernhard, Dan Castellaneta, Colleen Camp, Kevin Meaney, Pamela Segall, Robert Costanzo. (R, 85 min.)

There is a popular line of metaphysical thought that says each person has their own personal heaven or hell preordained by the powers that be. Each heaven is different in its own way, and each hell is unique to its owner. My hell involves Judy Tenuta, Sandra Bernhard, and repeated viewings of this film. That being the case, I'm thinking of joining the priesthood, or, at the very least, the Peace Corps. Something, anything, to keep a civil distance between Them and Me. It's rare that a film can enact a spiritual change of this magnitude in a reviewer, but Plump Fiction, with its audacious inanity and harrowing lack of smarts, accomplishes the trick in spades. In a summer filled with truly awful parodies, this is the nadir of the cheese wheel. Maggoty Brie is more appetizing than this unfunny take on the films of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, and even with the considerable talents of Davidson (parodying Samuel L. Jackson's Pulp Fiction character and doing a pretty mean job of it) and Castellaneta (parodying Forrest Gump and doing a really terrible job of it), this is a bloated, one-joke wonder that only makes you wonder why it was made at all. The whole circus smacks of end-of-the-night improvisational shenanigans, after a few too many Jack & Cokes and bong hits, and although it probably seemed like a good idea at the time, so did crossing the Donner Pass. Monday morning quarterbacking aside, Plump Fiction has a palpable air of desperation to it, partially engendered by Bernhard, Tenuta, and Brown's whinnying, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink histrionics, and partially by its overreaching silliness. It's not just bad, it's painful and occasionally offensive to those over the age of .05. Granted, a few clever gags slip in from time to time -- Kane Picoy manages a nifty, spot-on Christopher Walken impersonation and Segall has Juliette Lewis down pat -- but the overall effect is of watching a sinking ship founder for 90 minutes minus James Cameron. The water's cold, and there are lampreys in it. Bits from Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers and others find their ways into the mess, but all are sloppily parodied and fail to let the air out of anybody's stuffed shirt. On the plus side, the film is preceded by an inspired, 3-minute short that blithely sends up Swingers and Sling Blade, called -- wait for it -- Swing Blade. Directed by Nicholas Goodman, it's just enough to whet your appetite for more cool comedy and absolutely no indication of the horrors that follow. I'll be good from now on, just no more of this, please. (9/4/98)

0 stars

Marc Savlov


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