'Ariane's Thread' ('Au fil d'Ariane'): Film Review

Jerome Cabanel
A fanciful comic bouillabaisse served with too many ingredients—including a talking turtle—but one that goes down smoothly enough.

Marseilles auteur Robert Guediguian (“Marius and Jeannette”) teams up with muse Ariane Ascaride and his loyal band of players for this sun-drenched southern French fantasy.

Departing from some of his grittier, more socially provocative works of the past two decades, Gallic writer-director Robert Guediguian offers up a lighthearted foray into Provencal fantasyland with his latest dramedy, Ariane’s Thread (Au fil d’Ariane).

Starring the filmmaker’s muse, Ariane Ascaride, along with regulars Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gerard Meylan, this slice of Marseilles magical realism plays like an After Hours drenched in sunlight and Pastis, following one woman’s excursion to a seaside cafe filled with colorful locals and good vibes. Both too airy and too overstuffed to be placed among the filmmaker’s better efforts, Ariane nonetheless makes for an enjoyable summer distraction, not unlike a day trip to one of the region’s gorgeous little calanques

Released locally without much fanfare, the movie should play best among the French senior set, while hitting Euro territories familiar with Guediguian and his band of merry Marseillais. Overseas bids will be limited to Francophone fests and film weeks, as this may be too much of a trifle to interest major art house distributors abroad.

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Per the opening credits, this is “a fantasy by,” and not a film by, the auteur of such well-regarded films as Marius and Jeannette, The City is Quiet and Army of Crime, and once one accepts that notion, Ariane’s Thread is fairly easy to digest, even if it meanders at several points and the script (by Guediguian and Serge Valletti) never really builds into a full-bodied story. 

But like the movie's titular 50-something heroine (Ascaride)—who finds herself abandoned by her husband and children on her birthday, and thus decides to wander off and see what the day may bring—it’s less about trying to make sense of things than about going with the flow. Or, as in one the songs by French crooner Jean Ferrat that populates a busy soundtrack of classical and pop hits, it’s about taking in the beauty of the landscape and enjoying the simpler things in life.

After Ariane drives too far away from home, her car gets towed and she winds up stuck with a local cabbie (Darroussin) who also doubles as a theater director. He eventually takes her to a picturesque cafe-restaurant by the sea, where she makes friends with its crusty owner, Jacques (Meylan), as well as with an African night watchman (Youssouf Djaoro) and a young couple (Adrien Jolivet, Lola Naymark) experiencing severe growing pains. She also befriends a pet turtle who—in one of several flights of fancy—starts talking back to her, with their rather hefty conversations taking up way too much screen time. (The reptile was voiced by Judith Magre, who co-starred in Louis Malle’s 1958 classic, The Lovers.)

Many other episodes ensue as Ariane begins to open up to Jacques and the joint's regular clientele, moving into a nearby houseboat while offering up tidbits of advice, or else basking in the laid-back charm of her surroundings. Indeed, if Guediguian’s narrative thread leads anywhere, it’s to the idea that his beloved southern city has become overrun with perpetual construction and faceless modern housing developments, including the one Ariane lives in and temporarily escapes from. The “Olympic Cafe” where she decides to settle down turns out to be an almost mythical incarnation of a Marseilles on the verge of extinction, and one that’s too dream-like to be true.

As intriguing as that sounds, it doesn’t necessarily justify a near two-hour running time, and the film grows more redundant and digressive the further Ariane ventures through the labyrinth of Guediguian’s make-believe world. Yet while there aren’t too many rewards offered at the end of the maze (the film’s ending can certainly be seen as a cop-out), there’s something pleasurable in soaking in the warm atmosphere and touching characters, with the director’s trusty cast indulging in a series of easygoing conversations and playful bickering (including a late standout tiff between Darroussin and the excellent Anais Demoustier).

Polished tech credits are definitely a plus, with DP Pierre Milon (The Class) dutifully capturing the vibrant locales and scenery, revealing a picturesque setting you’d sooner visit than watch onscreen.

Production companies: Agat Films & Cie, Chaocorp
Cast: Ariane Ascaride, Gerard Meylan, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Lola Naymark, Jacques Boudet, Youssof Djaoro, Adrien Jolivet, Anais Demoustier
Director: Robert Guediguian
Screenwriters: Robert Guediguian, Serge Valletti
Producers: Robert Guediguian, Marc Bordure
Director of photography: Pierre Milon
Production designer: Michel Vandestien
Costume designers: Juliette Chanaud, Anne-Marie Giacalone
Editor: Bernard Sasia
Sales agent: Films Distribution

No rating, 115 minutes