Possible minor spoilers
I studied this film for my year twelve French studies and therefore have watched it over and over again. It's the kind of film that doesn't wear out from doing that, because the simple story and loveable characters remain as strong as ever. While it starts out slightly trite and weak, it finishes on a very high, enjoyable note, and is definitely the sort of film that can always bring a smile to your face.
Robert Guedigian is obviously a director to be interested in, simply because he has several trademarks that are never lost in his films. One is the setting, Marseille. Another is the cast, most notably his wife Ariane Ascaride who takes the lead in all of his films. The third is the working class, anti-rich sentiments which are always prominent. In Marius & Jeanette they primarily take the voice of the character of Caroline, played with much gusto by Pascale Roberts.
At the heart of this film is three different love stories between six characters who share a small and essentially quite ugly courtyard outside their homes(the place is ugly, but it's home). There's one between the communist, ex-deportee Caroline, and Justin, ex-schoolteacher and intellectual, who teaches the children of the community various things about theology and beliefs. There's the always-rowing Dédé and Monique, the former a fairly unintelligent working man who enjoys life's simple pleasures such as beer and football, the latter the ever-suffering housewife who must take care of their three children. And of course, there's the central romance between the mother of two, Jeanette, and Marius, a guard with a fake limp whom she meets at a cement works near her home.
While the romances form the centre of the story, Guedigian also makes room for plenty of other themes while he's in there. Most notably there's the communist view of the rich and the way they walk over the common man. There's a portrait of unemployment and the fragility of the working world (M. Ebrard is the greatest example of this). There's comments about death, and what happens to those who cope with it (note the fact that Marius never drinks and Jeanette never smokes). He also manages to slip in a number of fairly snide comments about Aix-en-Provence, the 'neighbour' town of Marseille, so to speak, while all the while there's Justin and his interesting theories about God and religion which he tells to Malek, Jeanette's son by a Muslim father.
But despite all these themes, it never loses track of its real point, which is the love story. And the love story is definitely the only real winner from all angles here. There can be disagreement, disgruntlement, eye-rolling at all the other issues raised, but the love story is sweet and pure. While it doesn't necessarily illustrate Guedigian's view that love stories among the rich are all about arranged marriages and dowries, it does illustrate his view that those among the poor are really about love, and its obvious and strong relations to companionship.
The film is well worth watching, and well worth a second look once you've seen it for the first time. It's smart, it's well-handled, heartwarming and extremely satisfying. Possibly Guedigian's best work. **** / *****