The Big Picture: A l'Attaque!(15)

Director: Robert Guédiguian (90 Mins)
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The Independent Culture

American screenwriting manuals tell you everything you need to know about the three-act structure, story arcs and embracing your protagonist's Quest – but they never teach you how to convey a political message. A French screenwriting manual (are there such things?) might offer the sort of insights found in A l'Attaque! – prescriptions for demonstrating "the absurdity of the world", the reminder that "only two things count in life: the class struggle and sex", and the pretty much irrefutable motto, "modernity means doing something that's right for the time you're doing it".

American screenwriting manuals tell you everything you need to know about the three-act structure, story arcs and embracing your protagonist's Quest – but they never teach you how to convey a political message. A French screenwriting manual (are there such things?) might offer the sort of insights found in A l'Attaque! – prescriptions for demonstrating "the absurdity of the world", the reminder that "only two things count in life: the class struggle and sex", and the pretty much irrefutable motto, "modernity means doing something that's right for the time you're doing it".

As a lesson in screenplay dos and don'ts, A l'Attaque! is better value, and considerably less doctrinaire, than a week of Robert McKee script workshops. It's also an eloquent essay in Brechtian political cinema – and, I should add, considerably jollier than that sounds. This is the latest in the series of Robert Guédiguian's stories set in the Marseilles port town of l'Estaque. Guédiguian is an unashamedly militant film-maker and a consummate story-teller, too – his next film, La Ville est Tranquille, out later this year, is an engrossing, harrowing realist panorama of Marseilles. A l'Attaque!, however, shows Guédiguian's lighter side, mixing its didacticism with a sitcom irreverence that makes for the frothiest study of Marxist economics you're ever likely to see.

The story centres on the Moliterno family, an Italian working-class clan struggling to keep their garage open, as they are betrayed by their prime customer, an exploitative container boss. But the story is also about two screenwriters inventing the Moliternos from scratch, as they rack their brains to write a script about the class struggle.

You know from the start that you're not in Ken Loach territory. The first thing you see is a pair of red curtains – toy ones, at that – which part to show writer Xavier (the langorously patrician Jacques Piellier) dozing in his garden, while his cast glare over the fence, demanding something to do. It's all right, explains co-writer Yvan (priceless fussbudget Denis Podalydès), he's simply doing what writers do – "marinating". Writing for these two consists of brief bursts at the keyboard, between lengthy bouts of snoozing, coffee-drinking, and swapping Flaubert quotations. Writing, Guédiguian demonstrates, is above all about the stuff you end up throwing away. At one point, the duo treat themselves to a scene in an all-singing, all-dancing brothel – then think better of it and scrunch the screen into a ball before getting back to business.

Despite distractions, the pair come up with some well-limned characters – but then, they have the members of Guédiguian's stock company to draw on. There's tough widow Lola (played by Guédiguian's regular lead Ariane Ascaride), who's not above romancing her bank manager to keep the business afloat. There's sad sack mechanic Jean-Do (Jean-Pierre Darrousin), forever aflutter with unrequited love of Lola. Then there's Gigi (Gérard Meylan), who's neglecting his hot-to-trot wife (Frédérique Bonnal), while she flirts with wealthy idler Henri, whose main function, according to the writers, is to represent an alternative to the consumerist lifestyle. Henri is one of several sketchy characters thrown into the mix even though the writers know they are surplus to plot requirements – for example, an ingénue whose main role is to expose her breasts on cue, by way of reminding us that even in political film-making, teenage flesh is the quickest way to attract financiers.

The political battle, when it comes, is almost a textbook illustration – that is, a jokey lesson in avoiding textbook polemic. We've seen the poor, says one writer, now let's have the rich – and we get a blatantly caricatured scene of slimy boss Moreau, as he plots in the boardroom and offers his banker cronies a luxury treat of sea-urchins. But then we cut to an Arab boy on the dockside selling sea urchins – "the proletarian food!" – and back to the writers arguing about this illustration of "geo-gastronomics".

Guédiguian may be parodying the proletarian humanism of the films made in the 1930s by Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol – but he also fondly proposes that there are still energies to be drawn from that almost forgotten strand of French cinema. He also satirises the idea of two bourgeois intellectual (and presumably Parisian) writers cobbling together a formulaic tale of salt-of-the-earth types. Yet Guédiguian's own characters are bigger and subtler than Xavier and Yvan's – they have their own life on the screen, rather than on the page. This is a highly democratic ensemble film, in which no-one exactly gets to dominate, but even so, the most winning presences are Ascaride and Darrousin. Almost a Mediterranean Barbara Windsor, Ascaride is a tough stocky soubrette with intense, tragedienne's eyes. And Darrousin is one of French cinema's great misshapes – a melancholic, spaniel-eyed potatohead who kicks the film off with a sweet, self-depracatingly amateurish serenade.

Jovial as it is, A l'Attaque! takes its politics absolutely seriously – and it comes as a jolt when, amid all the fooling, Guédiguian makes an unambivalent polemical point. In fact, it's the film's most on-the-nose statement that also strikes home most poignantly. When Jean-Do and Gigi break into Moreau's house to confront him, they find a Cézanne painting of l'Estaque itself and the aqueduct that is the film's main landmark. "As art, our lives are worth millions," they say, "but in the grease of our lives, what are we worth?" That comment could have come straight from a Popular Front film of the 1930s, but then, so could much of Jacques Menichetti's knowingly archaic score – alternately bouncy, sentimental and folkloric, even using the odd extract of a tearjerking Charlie Chaplin tune. Guédiguian's point is that film language may have changed, but politics, in many ways, is the same as it ever was. Old-fashioned as it seems, A l'Attaque! is entirely modern – "something that's right for the time you're doing it" – and one of French cinema's freshest entertainments in a while.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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