'The House by the Sea' ('La Villa'): Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of AGAT Films
A familiar family affair.

The usual troupe of actors used by French director Robert Guediguian, including Ariane Ascaride and Jean-Pierre Darroussin, headlines his latest effort.

Three middle-aged siblings find themselves in their titular childhood home after their father has had a stroke in The House by the Sea (La Villa), another workmanlike and working-class story against the backdrop of the Marseille area that has the gentle rhythms and knowing ways of most of French filmmaker Robert Guediguian’s output. It also again stars his regular actors, including Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gerard Meylan, which provides the kind of continuity that allows the director to throw in a flashback to 30-odd years earlier by just editing in a piece of his 1985 film Ki Lo Sa.

His latest is thus familiar territory and, as such, will do nothing to expand Guediguian’s graying fanbase, which is small but quite devoted to these stories of everyday people trying to get by as they grapple with whatever life has thrown their way. After twin bows in Venice and Toronto, this will appeal to French-film weeks and the usual Guediguian-distributing suspects.

Darroussin here plays Joseph, a former union man who was fired but managed to negotiate a good exit deal, an infinitesimal new variation on a character he’s played before (in Guediguian’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, he was called Michel). Ascaride played Darroussin’s wife in Snows but is here Angele, Joseph’s sister, a stage and TV actress living in Paris who has come down to the small bay and port near Marseille where they all grew up. The siblings’ second brother, Armand (Meylan), has continued to live in the villa their father, Maurice (Fred Ulysse), had constructed and run the family’s modest eatery on the water, though when the trio is reunited, it is winter and there are no customers.

All three are faced with an incapacitated man who’s unable to talk anymore, and Angele feels highly uneasy because she’s been assigned half the inheritance while her brothers both each get only a quarter. She feels this might have been because her young daughter died 20 years ago when her father was supposed to look after her while Angele was away. Never able to digest the tragic event, she hasn’t been back to the villa since. The siblings’ chilly relations are telegraphed early on when Armand very perfunctorily kisses Angele to greet her when she arrives but notably doesn’t answer when she forces herself to say: “I’m glad to see you. You too?”

Guediguian reunited with his Ariane’s Thread co-writer Serge Valletti for the screenplay, and their storytelling displays similar economy elsewhere, sketching out backstories in just a few quick sentences or with an all-saying silence. Further completing the small ensemble are Joseph’s much younger fiancée, Berangere (Anais Demoustier, in her third Guediguian effort); the local, thirtysomething fishmonger, Benjamin (Robinson Stevenin, in his fourth picture with the director), who turns out to be a big fan of Angele; and their successful, fortyish neighbor, Yvan (Yann Tregouet, on his sixth round). Yvan’s elderly parents (Genevieve Mnich, Jacques Boudet, the latter here in his 13th feature by the director), who live on the bay as well, face their own crisis, as the children of their late landlord have tripled their rent and they cannot afford it anymore. This is just one of the many ways in which the filmmaker works in one of his recurring motifs, which is that nothing finally stays the same, however much we’d like it to.

For the first hour, this is mainly a family drama in which the siblings reminisce and, if not quite reconcile, at least learn more about each other and the motives behind their actions and thinking. Some romantic plot developments also provide some welcome comedic material, which is expertly blended in with the tragedies in the past and in the present, as Maurice’s situation is at one point overshadowed by two deaths of people in the bay.

As usual, Guediguian can get a little sententious, and the film doesn’t really need the couple of flashbacks we get, though one exuberant village Christmas celebration is staged with such gusto it does help to underline how quiet the little bay area has now become. The absence of a traditional score reinforces this idea and overall, the story retains a calm, even-keeled quality that is observant and wise. 

The screenwriters do add an entirely new issue to the story with the late arrival of some unexpected guests. Given the political reasons behind their stay and the characters’ (and the director’s) professed interest in politics, it is something of a disappointment there isn’t more time to properly develop this material and really anchor it in the overall narrative. The film’s first hour and last reels are now a not completely organic fit, taking things from an intimate and personal level to a global scale while skipping over an awful lot of things in between.

In terms of both the acting and the craft contributions, The House by the Sea is largely familiar. The Calanque de Mejean location, just outside Marseille, lends the proceedings something picturesque, with its tiny port and large overhead railway bridge. But even so, Guediguian remains very tuned in to the myriad problems associated with living in a village and on the coast in the 21st century.

Production companies: Agat Films & Cie, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Gerard Meylan, Jacques Boudet, Anais Demoustier, Robinson Stevenin, Yann Tregouet, Genevieve Mnich, Fred Ulysse, Diouc Koma
Director: Robert Guediguian
Screenwriters: Robert Guediguian, Serge Valletti
Producers: Robert Guediguian, Marc Bordure
Director of photography: Pierre Milon
Production designer: Michel Vandestien
Costume designer: Anne-Marie Giacalone
Editor: Bernard Sasia
Casting: Jacqueline Vicaire
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)

Sales: MK2 Films

In French, Arabic
107 minutes

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