Directed by Robert Guédiguian, starring Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Gérard Meylan, Christine Brücher and Alexandre Ogou.

Having come to international recognition with the Marseille-based charms of 'Marius et Jeannette' and 'A La Place du Coeur', Robert Guédiguian's ninth film finds him once again on the familiar turf of his hometown. But while the setting remains constant, the gentle drama of his former films is eschewed in favour of a dark journey into French society.

With multiple narratives, Guédiguian presents a group of disparate characters trying to cling to hope while the odds continue to pile up against them. Michèle (Ascaride) works all night in the city's fishmarket and then returns home to care for her grandchild and junkie daughter, Fiona. As Fiona falls further down the spiral, Michèle seeks help from childhood sweetheart Gérard (Meylan) who agrees to procure heroin in a bid to get the girl clean.

Across town drives Paul (Darroussin), a former docker who turned his back on his trade union principles, took redundancy and bought a taxi. He tells his parents that things are going great but he's unable to meet the repayments on his cab and the money he does earn is spent on prostitutes as he tries to blot out his loneliness. His pain is also felt in more salubrious surroundings by Vivianne (Brücher), a music teacher whose marriage to an architect has collapsed but who finds friendship and more with Abderramane (Ogou), a young African whom she taught in prison.

With drug addiction, prostitution and hate crimes underneath the Marseille sun, this is a bleak but tremendously powerful film which examines both class and race without ever coming across as being too worthy for its own good. With numerous subplots on the boil, Guédiguian's characters regularly cross in to each other's stories but he never loses sight of the fact that they all face their fate alone. All fool themselves into thinking that things are going to get better although Guédiguian never judges them, preferring instead to balance their imperfections with their virtues.

The acting is excellent with Ascaride mesmerising as the woman running out of chances for her daughter, and Darroussin eliciting both pity and frustration as the terminally lonely Paul. And while Guédiguian tries to knit everyone's story together with three instances of violence (a racist attack, a contract killing and a shooting) which jar somewhat with the emotional complexities which preceded them, 'La Ville...' remains one of the best French films of the year.

Harry Guerin