À la Place du coeur

France 1998

Reviewed by Elisabeth Merriman


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Present-day Marseilles. Clim Patché is 16 and engaged to 18-year-old would-be sculptor Bébé Lopez. Clim visits Bébé in prison and announces she's expecting their child. She then tells her parents (Marianne and Joël) and sister, who are understanding. The Patchés visit Bébé's family bearing the same news. Franck Lopez is pleased, but his wife and daughter, unsupportive towards Bébé, react with outrage. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal Clim's memories of her own and Bébé's past. Firm friends since childhood, Clim is white, from a close-knit family, whereas Bébé and his sister Blondine are black and have white, unhappily married adoptive parents. Clim recalls the first time she and Bébé made love, the time they announced their engagement, the night the baby was conceived and being harassed repeatedly by the same racist policeman.

Clim and Marianne visit their lawyer. Bébé is accused of rape by the racist policeman and a Bosnian woman named Mme Radic who has fled back to Sarajevo. Money is short to fund Bébé's defence. Joël and Franck (now unwell and drinking heavily) start stealing from the docks. Marianne travels to Sarajevo. Despite Marianne's pleas, Mme Radic's brother Piet will not intervene. Marianne locates Mme Radic, but she will not reconsider her evidence. However, the lawyer later produces Piet's statement that his sister admitted that she didn't see her attacker. While the Patchés celebrate, an anxious Blondine and Mme Lopez appear; Franck is missing, fired for stealing. Joël discovers him drunk and passed out, possibly dead. The film closes with a freed Bébé sculpting and Clim in labour.


Robert Guédiguian's previous film, the charming and successful Marius and Jeannette, was pointedly subtitled "un conte de l'Estaque". By calling it a 'tale', Guédiguian emphasised the almost parable quality of the film (redemption from hardship and tragedy through love and community). The location of l'Estaque is also significant. Guédiguian, inspired by his origins in a working-class immigrant community in Marseilles, only films in and around the city, which is, as one critic has put it, effectively his muse. His films thrive on the special intensity and golden richness of the light in the outdoor scenes, and the camera lingers on Marseilles' architectural façades, streets and edgy decay. A la place du coeur is visually dominated by the Marseilles docks, a flyover and the looming Cathédrale de la Major. These features all contrast with the interior life of Clim, the young pregnant woman who is the film's central protagonist. This backdrop heightens the claustrophobia of the prison visits and the intimacy of the domestic scenes; equally it grounds the film in the city. This mise en scène suggests the characters' evolving relationship with the city, one both nurturing and damaging.

Surprisingly, this is an adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk which is itself powerfully informed by its setting in black Harlem. Like much of Baldwin's work, the novel is a sophisticated and angry contemporary witness to white racism and the oppression of blacks in the US. Guédiguian and his co-writer (Jean-Louis Milesi), as is entirely their prerogative, have made some important changes, substituting Marseilles for Harlem, Sarajevo for Puerto Rico. They have also altered the ethnic mix of the central relationship and of the neighbourhood (perhaps making it more relevant to current Marseilles). Nevertheless, the film is very faithful to the book in structure. The alternation of action and flashbacks closely mirrors the composition of the novel. Much of the dialogue is transferred almost word for word to the screen. Clim's narration and reminiscences, whether she is trying to make sense of the situation to herself, to us or to her unborn child, also echo the contemplative pace of the book.

A la place du coeur is a considered treatment of the pressures on young people which include more than just racism. There is also the threat of aimlessness, of feeling worthless, and of hard drugs. Clim and her boyfriend Bébé represent resilience in the face of such stresses, but a didactic tone lingers over their story as their survival is clumsily opposed to the downfall of two childhood friends. Bébé's parents are ill-equipped to help - the mother because of her (rather unsubtly displayed) religious obsessions, the father because of his unhappiness. The strength and unfailing devotion of Clim's parents are too stark a contrast; their heroic stature also ironically reduces them to caricatures.

Although Clim and Bébé are engagingly played and plausible, what Guédiguian tries to build around them lacks genuine atmosphere and spontaneity. The recurrent use of Baldwin's dialogue, with its own particularly declamatory language, is sometimes jarring. Despite strong performances from the actors playing the parents, many of the crucial family scenes are tinged with artificiality. Guédiguian's film is dismayingly self-conscious in its attempts to direct our sympathy. And perhaps he still cannot resist straying into a fable - Bébé's happy release is by no means assured at the conclusion of Baldwin's novel.


Gilles Sandoz
Michel Saint-Jean
Robert Guédiguian
Scenario/Adaptation/ Dialogue
Jean-Louis Milesi
Robert Guédiguian
Based on the novel If Beale Street Could Talk by
James Baldwin
Director of Photography
Bernard Cavalié
Bernard Sasia
Art Director
Michel Vandestien
©Agat Films & Cie/Diaphana/La Sept Cinéma/France 2 Cinéma/Le Studio Canal+
Production Companies
Agat Films & Cie presents a La Sept Cinéma/France 2 Cinéma/Le Studio Canal+/Diaphana co-production with the participation of Canal+/soficas Studio Images 4 and Sofinergie 4/ Centre National de la Cinématographique
An Agat Films & Cie [Gilles Sandoz] production
Producer, Saraj Pictures
Sead Ziga
Production Services
Saraj Pictures
Manager, Saraj Pictures
Meska Ziga
Production Manager
Malek Hamzaoui
Unit Production Manager
Bruno Ghariani
Unit Managers
Alexandra Bourdon
Omar Yousfi
Mustapha Zaoui
Location Manager
Saraj Pictures:
Nedzad Begovic
Assistant Directors
Jacques Reboud
Eric Vassard
Maya Sevleyan
Bébé's Sculptures
N'Dangani Mavambu
Paco Gomez
Maïté Alonso
"Nocturne No1 en La bémol majeur (Hohe Liebe)", "Nocturne No2 en Mi bémol majeur (Seliger Tod)", "Nocturne No3 en La bémol majeur" by Franz Liszt, performed by Jorge Bolet; "Baby Let It Be" by R. Obeocht, Thomas Schleh, Luke Skywalker, Enrico Zabler, performed by Masterboy; "Beale Street Blues" by William C. Handy, performed by Louis Armstrong; "Te de homme" by/performed
by Arnold Turboust; "Avec le temps" by Léo Ferré, performed by Jacques Menichetti; "A ta yulie" by Hamid Chaou; "Ana el owerka" by Kechekoul, Skandrani; "Qum tara" by Reinette L'Oranaise
Production Sound Mixer
Laurent Lafran
Dominique Gaborieau
Sound Effects
Nicolas Becker
Ariane Ascaride
Marianne Patché
Christine Brücher
Francine Lopez
Jean-Pierre Darroussin
Joël Patché
Gérard Meylan
Franck Lopez
Alexandre Ogou
François 'Bébé' Lopez
Laure Raoust
Clémentine 'Clim' Patché
Véronique Balme
Sophie Patché, 'soeurette'
Pierre Banderet
Mr d'Assas, the lawyer
Patrick Bonnel
Jaime, Sarajevo taxi driver
Djamal Bouanane
Khalil, the boss
Jacques Boudet
Mr Levy, the landlord
Guillaume Cantillon
Daniel Corti
Jean-Jérôme Esposito
'the shrimp'
Marius Grygielewicz
Piet Radic
Aurore Mensah
Blondine Lopez
Beata Nilska
Mme Radic
Laëtitia Pesenti
Jacques Pieiller
the cop
Hélène Surgère
the vendor
Abdramane Diakite
child Bébé
Fiona Kendirian
child Clim
Sofia Besnard
child Nora
Amy Gassama
child Blondine
Lisa Lucciardi
child 'soeurette'
Benjamin Piat
child Daniel Corti
Jacques Menichetti
Sarajevo singer
Yasmina Medjoub
Monique Meylan
Gilles Benard
Suzanne Hetzel
Fardji Hammadi
Artificial Eye Film Company
10,107 feet
112 minutes 19 seconds
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011