Since his breakthrough filmMarius et Jeanette 12 years ago, writer-director Robert Guediguian has become well-loved by many lovers of French cinema for his films resonantly set in and around his home town of Marseille, the southern French port city. These have for many years been made with the same crew and an informal company of regular actors, including his wife, Ariane Ascaride – Giulietta Masina to his Fellini.
Like the younger Laurent Cantet (The Class/ Entre les murs), Guediguian's work is marked by a sympathy for working class characters that contrasts with the strong French cinematic obsession with the problems of the middle-class. This regard for the underdog has also seen him examining race, notably in Where the Heart Is / A la place du coeur, a story of cross-racial romance (Marseille has one of the biggest immigrant populations of all French cities) adapted from a tale by US writer James Baldwin).
But in way that once would have seemed unthinkable, Guediguian has started to move away from the need to set everything in his beloved city by the sea. Witness The Last Mitterand (Le dernier Mitterand), a chamber drama about a biographer trying to nail down the truth about the socialist French President of the 1980s and '90s, and latterly Journey to Armenia (Armenia), which was mostly set exactly where its title suggests.
Not that he has abandoned his Mediterranean home. When I met him and Ascaride in Paris recently, he explains that his new pattern is to alternate the “personal” films, which he defines as being set in his home town, with films set elsewhere. His latest, the Marseille-set Lady Jane, which features in this year's Alliance Francaise Film Festival, is to be followed by a story about French resistance fighters in WW2 set in Paris - though he adds that he does not know if he'll be able to maintain this rhythm.
“It's important to me, to enable me to talk about myself , which I do in many of my films,” Guediguian says, adding that “over recent years I have been making so many films, it becomes well-nigh impossible to continue making personal ones, because time has to go by before I feel that I have something else to say. That's why there's been the introduction of films that have not been shot in Marseilles. “
Lady Jane (the title refers to a perfumerie) is an intimate crime story starring Ascaride, Gerard Meylan and the wonderfully sad-eyed Jean-Pierre Darroussin as middle-aged former friends who were part of a Robin Hood-like trio of criminals in the late 1960s and are reunited after a kidnapping. Guediguian's background certainly isn't in crime fiction, but then this really isn't a genre film; rather it uses its crime scenario as a way of putting its characters under greater pressure, to reveal who they really are and how they really relate.
“I wanted to find an enigma that could be the starting point of the film, “ the filmmaker says, “an enigma that people would want to solve. I started to think about the idea of a mother whose son is kidnapped, she is asked to pay the ransom money, nobody comes to collect it, and her child is then killed. She then does the last thing you would expect - contrary to any mothers you've seen in similar scenes in other films, she runs away. The idea was to have a film that made people understand why she behaved in the way that she did.”
Despite sticking to his guns and refusing to buckle to commercial pressures, the prolific Guediguian has found it surprisingly easy to raise the finance to keep churning out his personal features at a regular rate since his international success with his seventh film, Marius et Jeanette. “I can come up with the necessary finances within a matter of weeks,” he says. “The funding is there, the people I need to see, the production side, the distributors. They're always the same people and they are there waiting in the wings. As I'm able to do it, I do it. If I decide I want to make a film next summer, I can.”
Ascaride points out however that he has left something crucial out. “It is really to do with our policy, which is that the finances for the film are kept low,” she says. “What we earn is low – the salary for the actors, the crew. When we finish a film, if say (French investors) Canal Plus put money in, they are reimbursed immediately.”
Not that they want to give the bogus impression of being poor. “We are well paid but it's not excessive,” says Guediguian. “Also we have a different view or conception of the whole world of cinema; when you see how certain films are shot, people living in luxury trailers and they get the best local plonk, the best Bordeaux - we don't do that.” Somehow this isn't surprising.