the Phocaean city in length, in width and in light


Nearly two hours devoted to the millennial history of Marseille are not too much to try to grasp a little of the complexity, the energy, the areas of shadow and light of this immense and so special city.

Marseille is told in this documentary by Hugues Nancy.

In order to embody the city, the experienced documentary filmmaker has chosen the self-portrait. Marseille thus tells its story in the first person singular through the enveloping voice of singer Clara Luciani. This narrative mode, sometimes awkward in certain documentaries, turns out to be successful in this specific case.

Beyond the clichés, Marseille is delivered through quality animations to explain what the city was like in Antiquity, then under the reign of Louis XIV or Napoleon III wishing to transform the city in depth. Marseille, and which, with gigantic projects in support, will succeed.

Pagnol films

Marseille can also be discovered from the sky, which makes it possible to better understand the urban upheavals, the extent of its territory and to underline the breathtaking beauty of certain places. Also through photographic archives which bear witness to often tragic episodes such as the raids of January 1943 and the destruction of an entire district around the town hall in February of that same year.

And then there are the film archives, mostly colorized. An assistant to the Lumière brothers filmed the Old Port as early as 1896. Short passages from Pagnolesque films (mariusin 1931, Fannyin 1932) alternate with excerpts from television reports which, from the end of the 1930s to today, film the sometimes dark realities of Marseille: gang warfare, wild urbanism, nothing is hidden.

But the general public cannot understand Marseille without well-chosen testimonials. Mission accomplished with the judicious choice of around twenty Marseillais of all generations, from all neighborhoods, famous (Ariane Ascaride and Robert Guédiguian, Macha Makeïeff, Philippe Fragione alias Akhenaton) or not.

Land of welcome

Facing the camera, they recount their childhood, their life, their ancestors, their city in constant motion. “This landscape hurts the eyes it is so beautiful. But there is such misery that it also hurts the eyes”sums up nicely the musician Mélanie Egger.

Since the 1950s, the city-world, once a land of welcome for Italians, Armenians, Jews from Turkey, White Russians, North Africans, before experiencing the influx of Pieds-noirs from Algeria in 1962, has continued to live profound urban, economic, demographic and cultural changes.

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Local industries have disappeared, large groups of apartment buildings have sprouted to the north, where, ironically, decades before, the bourgeois came to cool off in their beautiful bastides.

Today ? Marseille is still on the move, as if caught in a vice between fatal shootings, endemic poverty, cultural dynamism and the gentrification of certain neighborhoods where real estate displays prices almost “parisians” (with the accent). Marseille in the years to come? The story remains to be written.

Once upon a time in Marseillesby Hugues Nancy (Fr., 2022, 110 min).