Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

In Robert Guédiguian’s Marius and Jeannette, falling in love is an act of solidarity. This unlikely French hit unfolds entirely in Estaque, the working-class Marseilles neighborhood where the writer-director grew up, and is more interested in class than sex. New lovers often exclude the other people around them, but for middle-aged Marius and Jeannette, their new relationship is primarily reason to bring him into Jeannette’s extended family. This group includes not only Jeannette’s children by two different (and now both absent) fathers, but also her lively neighbors.

Security guard Marius (Gérard Meylan, the director’s childhood friend, who occasionally acts in films while on vacation from his job as a hospital nurse) and hypermarket-cashier Jeannette (Ariane Ascaride, the director’s wife) meet cutely in an underclass sort of way: He catches her stealing paint from the industrial site he patrols. The property is an abandoned cement works that’s being demolished, but symbolically it’s a graveyard for France’s working class. Indeed, Jeannette’s father died there. (The final voice-over dedicates the film to “thousands of unknown workers.”)

The hotheaded Jeannette calls the laconic Marius a fascist, a sentiment that reflects her circle of friends: Monique (Frédérique Bonnal), who never lets her husband Dédé (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) forget that he once voted for the far-right National Front; Caroline (Pascale Roberts), a Communist who never lets anyone forget she spent World War II in a French concentration camp; and Justin (Jacques Boudet), a retired school teacher who’s the neighborhood intellectual and Caroline’s sometime lover. After Marius brings Jeannette some paint and offers to help redo her small house, he also meets her children, teenage Magali (Laëtitia Pesenti) and her younger half-brother Malek (Miloud Nacer), whose father was an Arab.

What follows is offhand, episodic, and gently charming: Jeannette is fired for telling off her boss, who later is fired, too. Marius and Jeannette dine at an upscale outdoor cafe, where yuppies at the next table talk high finance and Jeannette is given a “woman’s menu” that contains no prices. (“I like it when it’s not expensive,” she protests.) Magali shocks her mother by telling her she wants to study in Paris. Caroline explains why drinking Heineken destroys jobs in France. When the plot kicks back in with a crisis for the lovers’ relationship, the development seems contrived. (This, and the soundtrack’s moldy mix of Vivaldi and opera, are the film’s least compelling elements.) Ultimately, it’s up to Jeannette’s friends to put things right.

Originally intended for French television, Marius and Jeannette was made for a mere $1 million. Released theatrically after Guédiguian decided “it had something that really worked,” the film was nominated for seven Césars, the French equivalent of the Oscars; Ascaride won for best actress. After six other films set in Estaque (and featuring many of the same actors), Guédiguian finally connected with a mainstream audience in France, a country where, lately, unemployment has been something that doesn’t happen just to people in neglected urban precincts.

In its use of a modest story to open the doors to an entire neighborhood, Marius and Jeannette recalls two other recent French films, Cédric Klapisch’s When the Cat’s Away and Claire Denis’ I Can’t Sleep. The mix of proletarian consciousness and affectionate humor, however, is more reminiscent of such Mike Leigh films as High Hopes. Leftist but hardly dogmatic—Guédiguian joined the Communist Party as a teenager but quit in the ’70s—the film depicts working-class life as both cursed and blessed. By the standards of both French and American cinema, Marius and Jeannette’s most provocative suggestion is that happiness arises not from glamour but from humanity.

There’s a reason they call it film noir. In such movies, darkness is not only symbolic but logistic, signifying disturbing secrets while concealing them in gloom. So Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjaerg and writer Nikolaj Frobenius have scored a minor conceptual coup simply with the setting of their Insomnia: summer above the Arctic Circle, land of a midnight sun that proves unbearable to a Swedish police detective.

Like the recent Junk Mail, made by fellow Norwegian young Turk Pål Sletaune, Insomnia takes irascible delight in working a minor nihilistic variation on an established genre. Skjoldbjaerg’s film doesn’t follow the American model of a rebellious hero resisting a corrupt system. The corruption that cop Jonas Engström (Good Will Hunting’s Stellan Skarsgård) must face is within.

Frobenius’ script is terse about Engström’s background, but he arrives in northern Norway with a reputation for superb investigative skills and dogged by gossip about an unfortunate incident that spoiled his chances for career advancement in Stockholm. The event hasn’t damaged the detective’s confidence, and he quickly takes charge of the investigation into the murder of 17-year-old student Tanja (Maria Mathiesen). The case is unusual because the girl’s corpse was meticulously cleaned; the killer even washed her hair.

Suspicion centers on Tanja’s ex-boyfriend Eilert (Bjørn Moan) and a local mystery-novel writer, John Holt (Bjørn Floberg), who autographed a book for the girl. Having found a crucial piece of evidence, Engström baits a trap. A suspect appears, but escapes via an unexpected route and vanishes into the fog. In the low-visibility confusion, Engström accidentally shoots and kills his partner, Erik (Sverre Anker Ousdal). The cop impulsively decides to disguise his role in the shooting, blaming it on the presumed murderer. Now he has another motivation to quickly find the suspect: to see if Tanja’s slayer knows that Engström is a killer, too.

As the detective pursues his plan, he’s questioned skeptically by Hilde (Gisken Armand), the local policewoman assigned to investigate Erik’s death. Hilde is less of a hindrance, however, than is the sun, which penetrates every barrier Engström devises to make his hotel room lightproof. Sleep-deprived, the cop begins to space out and hallucinate, and his id governs—or seems to—encounters with pretty hotel desk clerk Ane (Jerusalem’s Maria Bonnevie) and Tanja’s sexy friend, Frøya (Marianne O. Ulrichsen). Engström is cracking up just as he most needs to be in control. And unlike famed fictional Swedish detective Martin Beck, whose latest adventures are also showing this month at AFI, Engström doesn’t collect himself just in time to wrap up the case tidily.

Skarsgård’s mirthless policeman offers a queasy contrast to mainstream Hollywood characterizations, but the film’s appeal is mostly formal: In addition to setting dark events in the blazing sun, the film also finds a wealth of claustrophobic locations in the wide-open spaces of the Arctic. Engström has come to the land of mountains and fjords, yet always seems to find himself in close passages: in low-ceilinged hallways, in small tunnels, under rooting piers. Such places may mirror the cop’s tight soul, but for Skjoldbjaerg, the visual metaphors are of limited utility. After all, Insomnia’s central proposition is that sunlight is not the best disinfectant.

Minnie Driver’s first period film could be titled Victorian Without Tears. In The Governess, the actress plays a bold young woman who defies the taboos of mid-19th-century Britain, only to escape without a scratch. Although Driver is slightly more convincing in flowing gowns than is Drew Barrymore, writer-director Sandra Goldbacher’s film is just as much a fairy tale as Ever After.

The film opens with a double shot of picturesque exotica: Rosina da Silva (Driver) leaves a Sephardic synagogue in one of London’s less genteel neighborhoods and walks home past whores who mock her as a “Jew girl”; one streetwalker shows Rosina a breast, a gesture that seems intended less for her than for fidgety male viewers dragged to a movie that promises to be both a costumer’s and a woman’s picture. Goldbacher, making her feature debut after working in documentaries, delivers expeditiously on this promise of sex.

Rosina is an exuberant young innocent who giggles with her younger sister about the probable consistency of semen, but she’s soon to have an opportunity for sexual experimentation. After her father is fatally stabbed in the street, Rosina must choose between entering an unappealing marriage or finding work to support her mother and sister. Well-educated in both the arts and the sciences, she elects to become a governess. Rosina decides that she must pose as a gentile to snag a respectable post, so she becomes Mary Blackchurch and heads to the very fringes of Scottish Protestantism: the Isle of Skye, another picturesque and exotic location.

Rosina is not taken with her charge or with the girl’s mother, who are, respectively, nasty and phony. She does develop an interest, however, in the man of the house, Charles Cavendish (Tom Wilkinson, perhaps best known as the management member of The Full Monty crew). Charles is a naturalist who’s in the process of perfecting photography to document his many specimens. Joining him in his work, Rosina accidentally invents fixer and then intentionally invents upscale soft-core porn, using herself as the subject. Soon, she’s seduced Charles.

“Do you know what to do?” asks the scientist before their first roll in the lab. “No,” Rosina says, but that’s not exactly true. As a lover, the young woman instinctively taps into her exoticism, which Goldbacher announces by cuing the sinuous tones of Israeli vocalist Ofra Haza. Asked to sing in the Cavendish drawing room, Rosina chooses Schubert, but when she and Charles make love we hear the hot-blooded howl of the Orient. (Ultimately, Rosina declares that her appeal to the Cavendishes is that of “a dark idea,” a line that rebukes its writer as much as it does its intended targets.)

Rosina and Charles’ idyll can’t last, of course. (For one thing, the latter is a bit of a pig.) There’s much melodrama as the two bicker, especially after Charles’ son Henry (Jonathan Rhys Myers) is kicked out of Oxford for opium use, returns home, and swoons for Rosina, too. This is the point at which a true Victorian tale would employ tragedy, or at least a little misfortune. Goldbacher’s film, however, is a modern story in 19th-century drag: From the writer-director’s vantage point, Rosina has done nothing wrong. She’s just a bright, inquisitive young woman discovering the world. It’s not a sin to be happy, Rosina tells Charles, and who could disagree with that? Aside from eminent Victorians, of course. CP