La villa (The House by the Sea, France 2017)

The general view of the waterfront in the creek

This lovely film took a year and a half to reach the UK and then only 3,000 people saw it in a cinema (see the Lumiere Audio-Visual Observatory database). It came out in January 2019 when UK cinemas were stuffed with American ‘Awards Movies’. I suspect The Favourite took up quite a few screens. I wish I had been able to see this instead. Robert Guédiguian is a filmmaker who has directed twenty-five films over the last forty years. The ones I’ve seen have been very good but too often his films are not acquired for UK distribution. I eventually watched this on a DVD from New Wave and I’m very grateful.

The three siblings, Armand is on the right

Many of Guédiguian’s films are set in Marseilles and they often feature the same trio of actors, Ariane Ascaride (Guédiguian’s partner), Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gérard Meylan. La villa is set on the ‘Blue Coast’ between Marseilles and Martigues at Calanque de Méjean – a calanque is a creek, which I realise has a different meaning in French/English compared to US usage. Here it means a narrow inlet on a rocky coast with a small harbour and room for a few houses around the harbour and nestled in the in the steep slopes. It’s the only location in the film, extending a little way into the hilly hinterland of scrub and pines. The elderly owner of the restaurant on the harbour has a stroke at the beginning of the film and is then cared for by his son Armand (Gérard Meylan) who is the restaurant manager/chef. It’s winter so the restaurant has no customers. Coming home to support their brother are Joseph (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Angèle (Ariane Ascaride). Joseph brings with him the much younger Bérangère (Anaïs Demoustier). Angèle is a well-known stage actor and she has not been home for twenty years. We will learn later what caused her absence. There are only three other residents of the little community who we meet and one other important visitor.

The restaurant becomes the site of family meals. The extra character here is the fisherman Benjamin

The three siblings are all in their early sixties, the same age as writer-director Robert Guédiguian. It’s a time to reflect on their lives and to think about how they will face the future. Their father is in an almost vegetative state and one of their ultimate decisions will be how to deal with the family estate. It looks very beautiful in the winter sunlight with a view out across the Mediterranean from the balcony of the house, the small boats bobbing in the harbour and the dramatic backdrop of a high viaduct which carries the rail line from Marseille to Toulon and Nice. The first half of the film is actually quite slow as Guédiguian gives us time to get to know the characters and to consider their situation. I was a little surprised since what I remember from his earlier films is a political discourse and a sense of collective struggles for working-class communities. Possible wrangling over an estate is a theme I associate with more bourgeois French films. The only younger character who appears in the early part of the film is Yvan, the son of the elderly couple who live next door. Yvan appears to be trained as a doctor who is now running medical laboratories somewhere in the region. He and Bérangère are the only ones active in the modern France. She has her laptop and headphones and he is trying to persuade his parents to accept money for their living expenses when he brings their medications.

Guédiguian does introduce a form of political discourse through Angèle’s visit to Yvan’s parents. She wonders why the community is so quiet, why is nothing happening? The other houses are closed-up in the winter and the old man replies “Money”. Framed black and white photographs show the creek full of people in summer enjoying life in the streets and by the harbour with the fishing boats supplying a busy restaurant. There was a real community but just as in many parts of the UK where the rich now like to have second homes, young people can’t afford to live and must leave as the communities become isolated in the winter. We realise too that Joseph represents the angst of the ageing leftists in France. Has he really given up as some of his worrying statements suggest? The editing by Bernard Sasia and the cinematography by Pierre Milon (whose previous job was on The Workshop a little further west on the coast) is very good in these early scenes, linking together the characters and the political, social and personal themes. A further ingredient glimpsed by Angèle as she gazes out over the harbour is the arrival of a couple of Land Rovers, dropping soldiers who begin to patrol along the path by the water’s edge.

©PHOTOPQR/LA PROVENCE ; Tournage du film ” La Villa ” réalisé par Robert GUEDIGUIAN dans la calanque de Méjean PHOTO : FREDERIC SPEICH (MaxPPP TagID: maxpeopleworld998737.jpg) [Photo via MaxPPP]

The action gradually begins to build up and I found the film engrossing. I’ve gone back and looked at scenes again because I don’t think on a small screen I became sufficiently immersed in the narrative to allow the ideas to come together. At one point, Joseph, sitting with his father on the balcony remembers an earlier community festivity led by the old man. There is also a flashback in which we see the three siblings as younger characters coming to the harbour and larking about to the sound of Bob Dylan on the car radio. It was only later that I realised this was indeed the three actors themselves appearing in an earlier film by Guédiguian, Ki lo sa? (France 1986). Guédiguian knows the coastal region and has remained committed to it. I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative which isn’t complex and you can probably guess the plot developments from the details I’ve given so far.

I was surprised to discover that this film wasn’t reviewed in Sight and Sound, which was once (via Monthly Film Bulletin which it absorbed) the official ‘journal of record’ for all releases in the UK. However, the former editor, Nick James mentioned its appearance at Venice (in the November 2017 issue). He calls it “distinctly old-fashioned” but says he wished to “eulogise” the film with its “intricate nuanced sets of relationships” but “its sentimental ending is ruinous”. I agree the first part of his statement but I thought the ending was an excellent use of ‘magic realism’ which I’m not going to explain. Suffice to say my tears started before the end, but that I found it perfect. I’ve always thought that ‘sentimental’ is a slippery term. There is nothing wrong with emotion in the right place and here it is definitely appropriate. I heartily recommend this to anyone prepared for an emotional response. Like the UK, France is in a difficult place and i think there is no harm in having a little hope.

This trailer gives away some of the plot details:

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