Marseille's reel charm

With its complex make-up and corrupt reputation, France's port city has long cast a spell over directors

CANNES (France)• Its grimy glamour and dazzling light have captivated directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Steven Spielberg, and now Marseille is the setting for no fewer than three films at the Cannes film festival, including American actor Matt Damon's latest drama.

France's raffish Mediterranean second city has iconic status in Hollywood as the setting for The French Connection thrillers of the 1970s.

Lately, the narrow alleys leading down to its Old Port have been thick with film crews.

As well as the Netflix series Marseille (2016 to 2018), which played up the city's reputation for corruption and criminality with French actor Gerard Depardieu as its crooked but charismatic mayor, a crop of gritty films by young French directors has also thrown it back into the spotlight.

Stillwater, which premiered at Cannes on Thursday, has Damon as a fish-out-of-water American oil-rig worker trying to get his daughter out of jail for a murder she claims she did not commit.

The film was directed by Tom McCarthy, who directed the Oscar-winning Spotlight (2015) and introduced Game Of Thrones (2011 to 2019) star Peter Dinklage to the world with Station Agent (2003).

It is no surprise that he should light upon Marseille, said Mr William Benedetto, who runs the city's mythic Alhambra cinema.

"Marseille is the most American city in Europe. Its port, like New York's, has been the springboard for so many stories," he said.

Like the Big Apple, Marseille is also a multicultural Babel, a city of immigrants with a big personality whose heroes and villains walk the tightrope of legality.

Netflix snapped up another Marseille-set film, BAC Nord, before it even premiered at Cannes, precisely because it has the hard-boiled quality of an early Martin Scorsese film. It draws on a real-life corruption scandal in the city's tough northern suburbs, where detectives were accused of stealing from the drug dealers they were supposed to be locking up.

Also penetrating these tower blocks is A Good Mother by acclaimed French actor-director Hafsia Herzi, which is also opening at Cannes. As a native of the city, Herzi had the credentials to film there, but still had to negotiate with the locals before shooting.

Many legendary directors have been drawn to Marseille, including Hitchcock (Rich And Strange, 1931), Spielberg (Catch Me If You Can, 2002) and Alexander Korda, who made a trilogy of films about the city.

And the number of films and series shot there has tripled in the last decade, according to local officials.

That is great for the economy, but perhaps risky for its reputation as many play on its stereotype as the violent and dangerous "Kalashnikov City".

"Marseille is a city that resists, that fights, that revolts, that doesn't take anything lying down, and that borderline side of it can sometimes end up as a caricature like in BAC Nord," said writer Vincent Thabourey.

But the cliches have also given France's former colonial port a global profile, he added.

That will get another boost from Stillwater, with Damon telling reporters on the red carpet in Cannes that the "Marseille is a real character in the film". He said he drew on his own emotions as a father of girls to channel the anger and frustration of a lost Oklahoma redneck abroad.

The actor, of course, has history in Marseille as it was a fisherman from the city that pulled an unconscious Jason Bourne from the Mediterranean at the start of the blockbuster Bourne franchise (2002 to 2016).

Trying to do justice to a "city as complex as Marseille is a real challenge for directors", said Thabourey, which is "why they probably keep coming back".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2021, with the headline 'Marseille's reel charm'. Subscribe