A leisurely but keenly observed ensemble pic set during one year in a small French community, “Seaside” marks a solid debut for director Julie Lopes-Curval. Character-driven venture trains a sharp cinematic eye on a dozen local denizens, ranging from employees of a factory dominating the stone-strewn beach to the family whose ancestors started it. The fest-ready pic is incisive in its portrait of individuals embracing or chafing at the limitations of small-town life.
Moody, neatly lensed affair begins with “summer” indicated by an onscreen caption. Paul (Jonathan Zaccai), a lifeguard at present — and grocery employee in winter — greets former resident Pierre, who has made it as a fashion photographer and is back with his new girlfriend to visit his mother (Ludmila Mikael) and father.
Paul’s sister works at the town’s casino, where their widowed mother, retired factory worker Rose (Bulle Ogier), plays the slots. Paul’s pretty g.f., Marie (Helene Fillieres), works on the assembly line at the mysterious factory where staffers sort smooth flat rocks drawn from the local coastline. The factory is reluctantly run by preppy, uncomfortable-looking Albert (Patrick Lizana), whose great-grandfather founded it. Albert’s globe-trotting mother, Odette (Liliane Rovere), has an unspoken connection to Rose. As captions announce “winter,” then “spring” (though strangely not “autumn”), the mostly incremental but sometimes momentous shifts in fortunes and affections come to pass. Developments are subtle, mildly intriguing and go-with-the-flow, and nature is a constant background to the inconstancy of human feelings.
Without makeup and sporting quirky expressive body language, Ogier is delectable as a quietly loose cannon who hasn’t put much thought into her retirement. Rovere is fine as Odette, a fellow widow of completely different social standing, and Fillieres is touching as the girl who’s too pretty for her social station, yet troubled by the notion of trading up simply because her looks would permit her to do so. Mikael is radiant during a mini nervous breakdown powered by manic energy.
Auds unaccustomed to films that are little more than an accretion of details and incidents may shrug and say “So what?” But the whole endeavor pleases with its wealth of tiny observations that add up to an affecting whole.