After their aged father suffers a debilitating stroke, Angèle (Ariane Ascaride), Joseph (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Armand (Gérard Meylan) reunite in their family home by the sea to discuss what to do next. All in their sixties now, and with their fair share of personal problems, relationships between the siblings are not as smooth as they used to be. It’s only when faced with this new challenge – plus a whole host of others – that they realise how strong their familial bond really is.
Set in an unnamed Mediterranean fishing village so picturesque that it borders on the absurd, The House By The Sea is the twentieth feature from French director Robert Guédiguian. Most of the headlining actors here have worked with him frequently before; in fact Guédiguian’s wife, Ariane Ascaride, has appeared in all but one of his movies. There’s a palpable closeness shared by Ascaride, Darroussin and Meylan, which makes them eminently believable as family, and adds an extra level of tenderness to the already warm-hearted film.
More than anything else, The House By The Sea is preoccupied by the relentless passage of time. There’s a feeling of elegy underlining the whole film; more specifically the limbo that accompanies late middle age. Though their father has been rendered brain-dead by his stroke, he is notdead, and so they cannot grieve properly. One of the brothers remarks how ex Israeli PM Ariel Sharon stayed alive for eight years in a similar condition. Their empty fishing village is another example of their liminality. Once a bustling place, the ceaseless march of gentrification has pushed out most of the longstanding residents; the only ones left of the old guard are the family and their elderly neighbours. It’s become a ghost village, a fact Guédiguian underlines with the absence of any score. All there is are waves and birdsong.Because the village feels not-quite-of-this-world, it gives the three siblings room to do a little soul-searching. All three of them are at crossroads in their lives; Angèle finally ready to confront the loss of her young daughter two decades earlier, Armand determined to continue his father’s legacy in his restaurant, Joseph is on the verge of breaking up with his fiancée (Anaïs Demoustier) – who’s young enough to be his daughter. Guédiguian tracks the gradual change in their emotional landscapes, as they wrestle with the demons that have been plaguing them. By the time we leave the family, each member has found a new resolve to help them face the next part of their lives. They know – for the first time in a long time – that they’ll always have each other.
The House By The Sea only really falters in the final act, when Guédiguian introduces three refugee children into the sibling’s insular environs. And even then, the faltering is just temporary. While the arrival of the kids is treated somewhat jarringly – a clunky way of linking the family’s troubles to the wider world – it does lead to the film’s beautiful closing scene. No one gets through life unscathed, or without losing what they hold the most dear. Kindness, then, is the only way.