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Muriel, François and René, three childhood friends from a working class neighbourhood of Marseille, suddenly stop their careers as thieves after having killed a jeweller.To keep a low profile, the friends see very little of each other until the day Muriel's son is kidnapped. Their friendship takes off right where they left it, when they come together once again to gather the ransom. Written by
Muriel (Ariane Ascarde), François (Jean-Pierre Daroussin) and René (Gérard Meylan) are a trio of longtime friends who grew up together in working-class Marseille. As the film begins, Muriel learns by cell phone that her teenage son Martin (Giuseppe Selimo) has been kidnapped. She calls on François and René to help her raise the ransom. Only later we learn that the three, Muriel included, share a criminal past and were the trio in old-men masks distributing stolen furs free to slum denizens in the pre-title opening sequence. Like some other scenes, this opener is a visual shock accompanied by loud noise, in this case electronic music. There's a shooting scene that makes the most hardened viewers jump.
The team split up years ago after one of them killed a jeweler in a parking garage. They've gone straight since, more or less. The need to raise lots of cash fast leads to new crime but not in coordination this time, and things go badly wrong again. Now that they're middle aged and bourgeois whatever idealism those free furs symbolized has faded into hopelessness and routine. François doesn't even love his pretty wife and daughters and wants to revive his old romance with Muriel, but no chance of that.
At present Muriel has a perfume business she runs out of a nice shop on a square in Aix. She calls it "Lady Jane," a nickname her father gave her from the Rolling Stones song. François runs a boating center some drug runners use. René has a strip club and rents out game machines to cafés. They're legit, but their straightness, especially in the case of René, is just this side of shady. The French call this kind of film a "policier;" but the only actual policeman we see is a young lieutenant (Pascal Cervo) who briefly asks a few questions and then disappears. Guédiguian drenches the screen with images of the three principals' faces in emphatic closeup--especially Ascarde's grim, stony stare. He mouth remains a tight little line but sometimes a few tears drop down her cheeks. I'm guessing like the director she's of Armenian origin, and her stoical mug recalls the immortal deadpan of Charles Aznavour in 'Shoot the Piano Player.' Hard to know what's behind it besides a diminishing enthusiasm for life. Only in the final scene do we find out this is a double revenge story, one that concludes with an old Armenian saying: "One who seeks revenge is like the fly that bangs repeatedly against a window, when there is a door that lies open." In Guédiguian's rethinking, revenge is a dish that never tastes good, hot or cold.
'Lady Jane' opened in Paris under two weeks before its US debut at the San Francisco film festival. Some French reviewers said the burnt-out mood of the trio reflects disenchantment with the Sixties. If so, this is a somewhat heavy-handed way to convey it, and indeed while some elements of 'Lady Jane' work very well, others don't. The symbolism and existential monologues slow things down, and the jagged and jarring use of flashbacks doesn't really succeed in linking past and present. The film's obvious strengths are Guédiguian's rapport with his actors and the way he uses them and his rapid editing of boldly shaky sometimes amateurish feeling camera images to recast a crime thriller (with plenty of violent acts) in harsh naturalistic terms, dropping slickness in favor of vérité, so that you sympathize with these characters even as you deplore their destructive behavior. There are some odd twists that keep you curious about the action (even though it's slowed down too often), and some classic French noir trappings remain reassuringly present: the stolid expressions, shiny cars, nightclub scenes, a tense failed rendezvous in a train station, and some effectively shot violence. But in dwelling on atmosphere Guédiguian holds back on story details so long that he has to resort to a glib, hasty finale where explanations of motive and identity are spoon-fed to us at the last minute as in a slick mystery or a TV cop show. Still, if you have the stomach for it, this is good stuff, with US theatrical potential and a good reception in France.
Seen at the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival.
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