'Gloria Mundi': Film Review | Venice 2019

Gloria Mundi still 1 - Venice Film Festival - H 2019
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Inglorious bastards.

Veteran French leftist and filmmaker Robert Guédiguian returns to Venice with his latest film.

Issue-driven fiction films aren't that easy to make because complex subjects might require so much exposition that it might be hard to find enough room for organic character development. This is the trap into which the latest film from veteran French leftie and filmmaker Robert Guédiguian falls — and it falls into it hard.

Like the other films in the director's socially conscious oeuvre, Gloria Mundi is well intentioned and has its heart in the right place. But this exhaustive — and exhausting — overview of the fragility of work for lowly laborers in 21st century France lacks even one character who feels alive. While this may be a reflection of how exhausted and hopeless today's working classes have become, it doesn't make for compelling drama, however important the issues discussed might be. Nonetheless, this was afforded a slot in the Venice competition, like the director's previous (and far superior) efforts The House by the Sea (2017) and The Town Is Quiet (2000).

One of the things that betrays how important the idea of sustained and honest work is for Guédiguian is the fact that he's worked with many of the same actors since his earliest features from the 1980s. It's like he has his own theater troupe, except he makes movies with them. The central trio in many of his films is composed of Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Gérard Meylan and Guediguian’s wife, actress Ariane Ascaride. In Gloria Mundi, Meylan plays Daniel, the childhood love of Ascaride’s Sylvie. He was sentenced to years in jail for manslaughter and Sylvie brought up their daughter, Mathilda, with a new flame, Richard, played by Darroussin. Richard and Sylvie subsequently had a daughter together.

When the film opens, the middle-aged couple is still a few years from retirement, with Sylvie working for a cleaning company that sends her to various locations, even at night, and Richard is a bus driver for the city of Marseilles. The now-grown Mathilda (Anaïs Demoustier, in her fourth collaboration with Guédiguian), has just had a daughter of her own, even though she can barely afford a child. Her hubby, Nicolas (Robinson Stévenin, doing his fifth film with the director), is an Uber driver, while Mathilda has just started as a sales assistant in a clothing store, though she's sure she'll never make it past the trial period. Companies, we are told, now hire employees for a period of several months and then fire them, hiring a new person for a new trial. This is much cheaper for the company than hiring a person full-time and long-term. Is this infuriating and unfair? Certainly. But these kinds of practices don't automatically make for good drama just because they are mentioned.

Mathilda's slightly younger sister, Aurore (Lola Naymark, on number four with the helmer), runs a successful secondhand store with her other half, Bruno (a bearded Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, also on his fourth film with Guédiguian). People who desperately need money will come to them with household appliances and the like, which the couple will buy for next to nothing and then repurpose or resell. "You're basically making money from other people's misery," one of the characters helpfully comments for those slow on the uptake. Aurore and Bruno are the most successful of the clan but also, very conspicuously, the most selfish and unlikable. That said, Mathilda's secret affair with Bruno doesn't exactly make her a saint either. 

When the film opens, Daniel is released from prison and travels to Sylvie and Richard because she has told Daniel that he's become a grandfather. Mathilda isn’t thrilled to meet her ex-con biological father and makes a point of stating that she considers Richard her dad. When tragedy strikes and Mathilda and Nicolas need money, Sylvie and Richard try to help and attempt to get Aurore and Bruno to help too, which turns out to be more complicated than they would've hoped.

The ease with which this relatively complex setup, with its sprawling cast of characters and many relationships reaching into the past, is sketched suggests something of the very polished professionalism of Guédiguian and his regular co-writer, Serge Valletti. What's surprising, though, is how much they struggle to make any of the people they've created come to life. Besides talking about work-related matters or family duties, there's very little that seems to interest or anger these characters.

In fact, each one of them seems to have been created to talk about a different aspect of the rotten state of the 21st century economy, with its precarious and exploitative jobs that can disappear after just one mishap (several characters here are victims of such circumstances). But there isn't all that much to the characters beyond their functions as people who have — and might lose — jobs. The few facets they contain beyond work-related matters often revolve around sex in a way that feels both crass and artificial. Even the elderly figures, who seems to be the only people with any human decency left, feel like mouthpieces for social, political, economic and moral ideas more than messy human beings trying to survive the best they can in a severely diseased system.

Guédiguian has never been a gifted visual stylist, preferring to concentrate on the message of his films and on his work with the actors. But without a screenplay that gives the actors credible characters to play, there’s virtually nothing they can do to save this film from being a dry and boring alarm bell about how bad things are for the working classes. 

For the record: Though the film is being referred to as Gloria Mundi in festival and press materials, the full title onscreen is (Sic Transit) Gloria Mundi. This Latin phrase means "Thus passes the glory of the world" and was a papal reminder of the transitory nature of earthly glory, honors and life. Mathilda's newborn is called Gloria. If nothing else, at least it's clear that Guédiguian doesn't think she'll end up inheriting a very glorious future or planet. 

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Ex Niholo, Agat & Cie, France 3 Cinema, Bibi Film
Cast: Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Gérard Meylan, Anaïs Demoustier, Robinson Stévenin, Lola Naymark, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet
Director: Robert Guédiguian
Screenwriters: Serge Valletti, Robert Guédiguian
Producers: Marc Bordure, Robert Guédiguian, Angelo Barbagallo
Cinematographer: Pierre Milon
Production designer: Michel Vandestien
Costume designer: Anne-Marie Giacalone
Editor: Bernard Sasia
Music: Michel Petrossian
Sales: MK2 Films

In French

107 minutes