Marseille. A City on Film
November 15 to December 2, 2013
This series on the cinema of Marseille represents an invitation to look at French (film) culture from a fresh perspective. Since the days of the Lumière Cinématographe, the country’s oldest city has been an integral part of European and American film history, relating a much different set of meanings than Paris, “ciné-cité” par excellence. The urban image of Marseille, a city of transit and node of the (former) colonial empire, is first and foremost characterized by the harbor. It is a gateway to the Mediterranean, a place of exchange for the raw materials imported from the colonies, and an interface for ever-new populations, who usually settle in the vicinity of the port and give the city its lively character.
This cultural-historical background is a decisive factor for Marseille cinema, not only in terms of film locations (such as the old harbor and the industrial docks), but also in relation to the specific mixture of forms that can be found there. It is both a regional cinema, concerned with realism and social issues such as labor and migration, and a genre cinema, shaped by European and American directors who sought and found an anarchic, exotic and popular southern locale amidst the Mediterranean flair of Marseille. The former tendency, a vibrant cinéma engagé, is represented by filmmakers ranging from Jean Renoir to Robert Guédiguian. The second current adapted two opposite genres for local purposes – the (musical) comedy and the gangster film. They tend to transform Marseille into either a sun-drenched idyll (as in the work of French author/producer Marcel Pagnol) or into a crime scene.
With its selection of more than 20 works, the retrospective will show the diversity of Marseille cinema, starting with the conflicting “modernisms” of the silent era. The Lumière Brothers, László Moholy-Nagy (Impressions of the Old Harbor) and Jean Epstein (Cœur fidèle) demonstrate the tensions between a middle-class Marseille, which profits from the city's colonial status, and its shadowy dark side in the form of social impoverishment. Following these are two very different personalities who dominated the French cinema of the inter-war years and whose films are still associated, respectively, with the bourgeois south and the leftist north of the city, with provincial comedy and socially engaged films of migration – Marcel Pagnol and Jean Renoir.
The retrospective will also focus on the Marseille auteurs of the postwar period. The anti-colonial work by Paul Carpita (Le Rendez-vous des quais) and the Brechtian cinema of René Allio (La vielle dame indigne) strongly influenced the urban imagination of the city and conveyed the social conflicts experienced during the port's modernization. To an even higher degree, this also applies to the works of today's most popular Marseille director, Robert Guédiguian, who since the early 1980s has primarily captured the city from the north, in such films as Dernier été, Marius et Jeannette, and La Ville est tranquille.
This local tradition, which is often linked with Marseille-bred stars such as Raf Vallone, Andréa Ferréol, Ariane Ascaride and Jean-Pierre Darroussin, will be contrasted by several French and international films that view the city from an outsider’s perspective. Among these, there is a strong art cinema strand (minimalist or highly stylized works by Claire Denis, Angela Schanelec and Erick Zonca), an exuberant affirmation of popular myths (e.g. Jacques Demy's musical, Trois places pour le 26 featuring Yves Montand), and a large number ofcrime dramas by directors such as Maurice Tourneur, Hugo Fregonese and John Frankenheimer. Often expanding into the areas of political and economic criminality, these films tend to engender controversy and debate – never more so than in 2013, the year in which Marseille acts as the “European Capital of Culture” and questions of the city’s image are in high relief.
La Ville est tranquille (2000), Robert Guédiguian's most impressive achievement to date, is firmly placed at the crossroads of several of these strands. A film equally concerned with crime and politics, popular traditions and specific communities, it uses dark irony to convey the opposite of what the title states: that it is precisely its “non-tranquil” aspects that make the city of Marseille such an exciting locus of cinema.
The retrospective was curated in collaboration with Daniel Winkler, whose book, "Transit Marseille" is available at the Film Museum in a newly expanded edition published by Schüren-Verlag. Winkler, a film scholar and linguist at the University of Innsbruck, will introduce several programs in the series.