Film Scouts Interviews

Robert Guédiguian on "Marius et Jeannette"

by Karen Jaehne

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March 18, 1998

Robert Guediguian and Ariane Ascaride were in New York, because their film "Marius et Jeannette" was slated to open a festival of French cinema at Lincoln Center.

When we caught up with them at the Mayflower Hotel, Ariane was as sprightly as in the film. She is obviously as comfortable being Madame Guediguian and translator for her husband as she is his leading actress. (They have made 7 films together). With the success of their latest film, "Marius and Jeannette," they have become France's most popular couple, something of a Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands.

Guediguian is known for his dedication to the working class or "the milieu I come out of," as Robert explains, after saying simply, "Please call me Robert. The world of normal people is what I know best, and I think there is so much about it that we overlook. It is full of unusual incidents, magical moments and charm. Not every filmmaker has to go out looking for monsters and fantastic events that never come to pass except in the perverse imagination of Hollywood."

Asked what he considers the ideal audience for his films, 'could it be, perhaps, the working class he reflects in them?' Robert nods, as if this question is not new to him, but he uses it to articulate his theory of entertainment. "Just because my films are about the working class doesn't mean they are necessarily for the working class. In fact, I suppose I'd rather think that the ideal audience would be people who might otherwise not actually see what goes on in the world beneath them. Or that they consider beneath them.

"If my films have any educational value, they show us life as it is lived at the most immediate level - where people work, what they do, how they do it, how they relate to their friends and family. Now many people go to the cinema looking for sheer entertainment - a thrill. Probably most of that audience come from the world in which I set my stories.

"Still, I would be happy to prohibit the exhibition of certain kinds of film. Those crass, violent, pointless movies about nothing but murder and sex. Who needs that, really?"

When I pressed Guediguian to see if he really felt as passionate about it as he seemed, he went further, repeating the French word for banning a film: interdit. "Yes, I would be glad to see them banned. They are a plague, a sickness.

"Something I am very proud of is that my film Marius et Jeannette opened opposite that big Hollywood movie The Peacemaker, and it sold more tickets. To me, that says a lot. When a small film like mine, which is about normal people making love, fighting, enjoying their friends and striving to live honest lives - when that kind of film can beat a multi-million dollar machine-gun-mad spectacle from another culture - then it tells me that people need the films I make."

Like many foreign film directors, Guediguian is outspoken about the invasion of Hollywood movies in their countries that, as he says, "promote America as the savior of the world, the angel of liberty, and policeman of the globe. This is a dangerous message, which can have disastrous affects in other countries. There are far too many of these police thrillers and cheap action movies in the cinemas. All over Europe! Not so much in France," he says, excusing the extraordinary box-office that Hollywood movies get in French francs. "France still has a great respect for the cinema and it is a culture where more is expected of film than these big spectacles offer. If you think about it, what do the people in Spain and Italy, for example, think? All they see sometimes is American...."

And then he says a word that I don't understand exactly but later find out means "shlock," and I am not surprised. It's an ancient cry, an outcry worthy of the Gauls, for as he says next, "And we feel like Asterix. You know Asterix, the comic book about the Gauls being invaded by blockhead Romans? A French filmmaker is much like Asterix. We must do it our way, but we have an empire to overthrow while we're at it."

Since I am from the empire they are overthrowing, I think about that a minute. I consider telling him how many Spanish and Italian and Greek filmmakers say the same thing, but then, I think they might get together and form a united front to battle Hollywood - and somebody might come after me for inciting a revolution, for treason! Jack Valenti would. (He's the head of the MPAA, sometimes called the most successful diplomat in the world, because he keeps Hollywood films flowing into countries where everybody is trying to ban them.)

Still, I like Robert Guediguian and I admire his passion and talent. I've only seen one other film of his, and it was very dark. The promise of "Marius and Jeannette" is the way he shows us the power of love to overcome poverty and fear. The Marxists may be right about some of those other things, but they were never very good on the subject of love. If Guediguian incorporates this lighter touch, he may revive Marxist cinema for the next generation, or from Marseilles to Malibu,for example, because there are single mothers everywhere with hopes of finding a man like Marius. And the Mariuses of the world could be directed toward some Jeannettes.

To be sure, the initial response in France to Robert Guediguian's film is obviously a validation of the first order, and credit must go to at least one Hollywood blockbuster for proving the worth of "Marius and Jeannette." (Robert's film went on to be nominated for 7 Cesars (French Oscar) and the star Arianne Ascaride won a Cesar for Best Actress).

When the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, "We went from being this little film that only a few people knew about," explains Arianne (who was suddenly a glamorous vedette of the Croisette in May of 97) "to being one of the few films people discussed - and kept talking about. We had never felt so important before."

"But what we have to remember is that is not an end," says Robert, smiling slightly as if he's taking the measure of his own importance. "We must continue to make films, of course. It is what we do. And we do it, because we love it, not in order to be important at Cannes."

"Still," says Arianne with a shiver of anxiety behind her grin, "we're waiting right now for the decision about our new film. Will we go to Cannes again this year? We would like to..."

"That is for Gilles Jacob to decide," says Robert with a wave of his hand. His dismissal is philosophical, as he refers to the man who heads up the all-important Cannes festival.

Robert and Arianne are totally charming, because their modesty permits them to speak of their beliefs with passion. They don't take themselves too seriously, but they do take their films seriously. It's not a bad recipe for success. Or a marriage.

They scurry around to get luggage and things together for their return flight to Paris. There are flowers to be given to the hotel maid - a few last minute things thrown in a flight bag. They are so much like you and me. And yet so French. At this moment, Arianne and Robert are the epitomy of what any of us would hope to be when we are at the pinnacle of our success - unaware of it, happy and on time for our flight to Paris.

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