Robert Guédiguian reflects on bittersweet changes in life, death and society in his native south of France in The House by the Sea.
Sea Changesby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
When their elderly father suffers a severe, incapacitating stroke, three siblings get together in the family home they grew up in to decide what to do next. Robert Guédiguian’s film is so imbued with the essence of the south of France near his native Marseilles that you can almost smell the sea and fragrant pines in the hills in the bright wintry sun. The magnificent house itself was built by the father Maurice (Fred Ulysse) and his friend and neighbour Martin (Fred Ulysse). Its boldly curved terrace commands a view of the pristine tiny cove, complete with a small fishing boat and fisherman Benjamin (Robinson Stévenin).
The House by the Sea has a strange, stagey quality. Everyday dialogue seems stilted and every utterance portentous. Its underlying themes are the changes that have destroyed the local community – the old inhabitants have sold up and all the houses are now holiday homes. Maurice owned and cooked for the restaurant attached to the house, where as a kind of community communism, he served traditional Provençal food at moderate prices intended for people on low incomes – now his son Armand is resisting pressure to sell fresh seafood at inflated prices to tourists.
Three middle-aged people together after an absence of many years means an orgy of reassessment and introspection. Angèle (Ariane Ascaride) is an actress, haunted by a family tragedy that caused her to leave home and worshipped by Benjamin since he was a boy. Joseph (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a former union activist, has turned up with a much younger fiancée (Anaïs Demoustier) and they seem to be on the verge of splitting up. Armand (Gérard Meylan) is the only one who stayed with their father in the family home, keeping the restaurant going himself. And then, as all the pieces of the jigsaw seemed to be coming together, an unforeseen action by the elderly Martin and his wife Geneviève Mnich), who are struggling to pay their rent after a huge increase by their landlord, affects their successful, upwardly mobile son (Yann Trégouët).
And threading through these two family sagas is the news of the landing of a boatload of refugees who have escaped along the coast and are being hunted by the army. It shows how this issue is always present in the consciousness of anyone along the Mediterranean coast. The arrival of this ‘deus ex machina’ gives these comfortably middle-class characters a chance to find their humanity or some kind of resolution. The sea has taken something away from them but it can also give something back. Somehow this makes sense in the rather Chekhovian tragi-comic bubble they’re enclosed in, and perhaps it’s hinted at by the reminiscence of Angèle’s most memorable role as Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan.
So the film throws up a tangle of interesting ideas. It gradually becomes more nuanced than it at first appears as its characters slowly become more rounded and sympathetic. But though at times it looks beautiful, there are also some clumsily inserted flashbacks of an idyllic Christmas past, the siblings when young (a clip from one of Guédiguian’s previous films) and a boating accident that, added to conventional storytelling, give it a rather workmanlike feel.
The House by the Sea is released on 11 January 2019 in the UK.