The Town is Quiet begins with a long, loving look at the harbor of Marseilles. It's the industrial hub of France where writer director Robert Gudiguian was born, the setting for most of his films, and his constant muse. In Gudiguian's opening pan, you see Marseilles from the sea, old cathedrals and modern office buildings glinting in the waning sunlight. But just as you can't know New York from the terrace of an East Side high-rise, Gudiguian insists that you won't find the real Marseilles in this tranquil long-shot. You must visit the fish markets, the taxi stands and the disguised dens of organized crime Marseilles is still famous for.

The lifeblood of Gudiguian's city lies in the unrealized dreams of its working class. Much like Ken Loach, Gudiguian doesn't try to imbue his characters' lives with meaning: Mich'le (Ariane Ascaride), the fish-market worker with a troubled family life, and Paul (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the striking dock worker who takes a settlement, don't symbolize anything. They're not especially noble. They don't contemplate their existence. They work. If you find meaning in The Town is Quiet, it's in the intersection of the characters' lives, or in Gudiguian's view of their peculiarly urban interdependence.

American audiences won't grasp the nuances of French politics that form the subtext of the film, and that underlie the characters' conflicting values, but it doesn't matter. Like Renoir, Gudiguian's compassion erases any value judgments you may make about either his characters or the hypocrisy of leftists and right-wingers. Mich'le's daughter Fiona (Julie-Marie Parmentier) is a drug addict. To pay for her habit, she turns tricks in the apartment she shares with her mother. Mich'le, estranged from her unemployed husband, works long hours, and then heads home to care for her daughter and Ameline, Fiona's fatherless child. Soon, Mich'le takes a "customer," Paul, to pay for her daughter's habit--she can't stand to see Fiona suffer or prostitute herself. Grard (Grard Meylan), a childhood friend with ties to organized crime, buys the drugs. For Gudiguian, they're all blameless, even Paul who buys a taxi, and his upper-class customers, music teacher Viviane (Christine Brücher) and her developer-husband Yves (Jacques Pieiller).

Each character in this well-written drama is on a downward spiral, but unlike the protagonists in other French films--you think of Rohmer especially--Gudiguian's don't talk endlessly about their plight. They act instinctually to resolve their problems. They look like working-class people, too. Ascaride (Marius and Jeannette, Adventures of Felix), with her Giulietta Masina-like face, is the quintessential working-class heroine. When she walks into Grard's cafe and Janis Joplin's "Cry Baby" is playing in the background, you think, yes, she epitomizes everything Joplin stood for. Meylan, who played opposite Ascaride in Marius and Jeannette, is excellent as the dark, brooding hood; his hangdog demeanor and his business-like approach to his work bespeak a terrifying inner life. Also remarkable is Parmentier's portrayal of a junkie who criticizes her mother for her bourgeois values. Fiona comes alive when her rage takes hold, but, like Mich'le, you can't respond with anything but pity.

Gudiguian's inspired score--sophisticated Mozart and working-class Joplin--is the film's only hint of transcendence. Listening to music, everyone, even the tragic Grard, enjoys a brief respite from the everyday. When, at the end of the film, a truck zooms by in the background of the shot, piano in tow, you know that the small boy in the opening scene, playing for the donations of passersby, at least had his wish granted. It's a small comfort, and one that doesn't redeem the suffering of Gudiguian's characters, but that's okay. It's out there, like the glittering skyline of Marseilles, to be savored if you happen to be lucky enough to see it.

--Maria Garcia