Three middle-aged siblings gather after their father suffers a stroke in The House By the Sea, a beautifully observed ensemble piece from French director Robert Guédiguian which today entered the competition for the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
“Family isn’t a word. It’s a sentence,” ran the tagline to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. For the French, perhaps, it’s more like a novel and for French filmmaker Robert Guédiguian it’s a long one at that. Following her father’s debilitating stroke, Angèle (Ariane Ascaride) – a successful actress – returns to the tiny fishing village perched on the rocky shore of the Mediterranean. Here she reunites with Armand (Gérard Meylan) who dutifully stayed at home running their father’s cheap and cheerful restaurant and Joseph (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a communist intellectual who has become an embittered sardonic failure, waiting for his way-too-young wife Bérangère (Anaïs Demoustier) to finally split.
Dad (Fred Ulysse) will never recover and is hardly even responsive. Family friends include an admirer of Angèle, a drama loving fisherman called Benjamin (Robinson Stévenin), and an old couple (Jacques Boudet and Geneviève Mnich) who represent almost the last connection in the village with the past. The village itself is a character. An obviously peripheral place that marks time by the gentle lapping of the tide and the occasional intrusive thunder of the trains on the bridge overhead going to and fro nearby Marseilles.
It is a cove, a favourite for smugglers now patrolled by the army, hunting refugees. Just as invasive are the property developers who don’t even make landfall but cruise in to the bay on their motorboats taking pictures on their phones with predatory glee before sweeping back out to sea again. The fragility of the place is underlined by Armand, who as well as keeping the restaurant that no one eats at open, spends his spare time clearing the paths up the mountains. “I’m terrified of fire,” he tells his brother. With people gone, the village is a ghost town of summer rentals and the family bicker over their own ghosts, but slowly the spell of the place and the memories it holds come back.
The value of home and family is further emphasized when Armand and Joseph discover a trio of small children who have apparently survived a capsizing and our now living on the mountain. It feels somewhat like a John Hughes comedy, in that everyone learns lessons, put to bed woes and somehow find themselves better people along the way. And it benefits massively from the obvious comfort the ensemble have working together – many of the actors are part of Guédiguian’s regular repertoire and Ascaride, his wife, has worked with him many times.
This comes to the fore in a short flashback to the same actors when they were young visiting the village – fished from Guédiguian’s Ki Lo Sa? (1985). This ingenious move allows us to feel more acutely the sense of loss the characters feel at their various disappointments and just the pain of not being young anymore. By the end, there’s more sweetness than bitterness and though the viability of this might be open to question, The House By the Sea is ultimately a deeply satisfying and occasionally moving experience.