He's kept on working, but it's been a while since the name Robert Guédiguian last appeared on our screens, an absence long enough for most filmgoers to have forgotten that this writer-director beat Barry Jenkins to adapting James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk with his Marseilles-set variant À la place du cœur back in 1998. (Changing times: in 2019, any filmmaker adapting Baldwin with a predominantly Caucasian cast would face... well, let's just say there'd be some trickier than usual Q&As.) With The House by the Sea, Guédiguian has reunited with old friends - those lived-in character players out of which the filmmaker has traditionally built his ensembles, and a sense of community. We wave hello once more to Ariane Ascaride, the director's wife and muse; to Jean-Pierre Darroussin, French cinema's great steadying presence, its bestubbled anchor; to the salt-of-the-earth Gérard Meylan. This reunion has a thematic serendipity: House proves to be about a reunion, bringing three siblings back together at their childhood home overlooking a picturesque bay after their father, a local restaurateur, succumbs to a debilitating stroke.
What was implicit in the original title (La Villa) and gets punched up by the new English translation is the film's potent sense of place. House unfolds around a sunsoaked backwater that suggests a Gallic equivalent of those sad-seeming English seaside retreats that enjoyed a heyday in the leisured 1950s and 60s, then fell into disrepair once the tourists flocked overseas, the residents sold up, and local talent struck out inland towards nearby cities. (It is, to quote Morrissey, "the coastal town that they forgot to close down".) All that apparently remains is the dividing up: the old man's will, newly returned to the table, proposes the villa be split between his offspring, 25% each going to Darroussin's urbane burnout Joseph, who arrives trailing a considerably younger squeeze (Anaïs Demoustier), and Armand (Meylan), who's stayed put to maintain papa's business, 50% to their actress sister Angèle (Ascaride), the extra share - which she refuses - presumed as compensation for the daughter who drowned in the bay while under grandpa's supervision. There's a real poignancy about the way the property now looks out onto the waters: it's as if the old man was keeping watch for the drowned girl - or, indeed, anybody else - to return.
For some while, the film is as deceptively quiet as its location. There's always been something of the ethnographer about Guédiguian, and stretches of House are simply content to put before us some understanding of how these people inhabit this space at this time (which, in the wider scheme of things, is the era of late capitalism). We watch Armand tending the soil, or Angèle revive her father's trick of catching squid with a bare foot; and all the while the boats come in and go back out to sea again, the TGV speeds over the viaduct, leaving this place to the rabbits and the jackdaws. What happens is we find ourselves being pulled inside this town, this house, this family. After 45 minutes, you feel you'd know exactly where to go should you need to post a letter or shop for groceries, and notice - as any guest eventually would - both the external resentments (how Joseph's jadedness alienates his better half, how Angèle regards Armand as something of a self-made martyr) and those internal conflicts stirred up by the old man's frailty (who they've become, and what they've left behind). These are mirrored in the house across the way, where the greying parents (Jacques Boudet and Geneviève Mnich) are reluctant to accept money from their doctor son, for reasons only gradually revealed. First world problems, perhaps, and they will be set in stark relief during a final half-hour that offers another unexpected turn in the road.
As ever, there's rarely any fuss with Guédiguian: not for nothing was he dubbed "the French Ken Loach" when his films first began to cross the Channel, although his economical social realism seems geared less to illustrating specific political theses than describing a more general way of life, alternately despairing, hopeful and beautiful - and possibly vanishing over the horizon. Angèle first presents as a sour-faced mope, but the homecoming sees her fall subject to a romantic flourish from a lovestruck sailor; within moments of the shadow of death crossing the bay, the siblings can be observed fussing about cigarettes on a balcony. Guédiguian has tapped into the rhythms of life, particularly as it might be lived on the coast: any dark clouds blow over, and the sun breaks through again. The second half is all richly rewarding pay-offs, doubtless more resonant for being enacted by mature, credibly conscientious adults - a USP that sets House apart from 98% of contemporary cinema. Guédiguian, who turned 65 last month, appears as concerned with legacy as anyone on screen: there's a neatness about some of his thinking - an optimism that everything works out - which may strike some viewers as fragile in the present moment, and possibly all the more precious for that. Yet look at the fragment he cuts in of his 1986 film Ki So La?, where we see Ascaride, Darroussin and Meylan larking on this exact same quayside thirty years before: here's a jolting reminder of how long this model of filmmaking has held for, and of an ideal of collectivity that may be needed more than ever.
The House by the Sea opens in selected cinemas from today.