A gracenote scene in Robert Guédiguian’s plangent, indulgent “The House by the Sea” finds three late-middle-aged siblings replaying a childhood game and calling each other’s names up into the arches of a viaduct so that the echoes sing a roundelay. It’s an evocative metaphor for the film’s gentle perceptiveness into lives that don’t run in straight lines but in wide arcing loops of beginnings and endings. But it also mirrors the form of the film, and its position within the veteran French director’s canon: “The House by the Sea” feels like the work of a filmmaker gazing back over his own filmography as one might across a sparkling blue sea, and observing its tides.
This wistfulness for what has gone before is lent added texture by the return of many of Guédiguian’s regular repertory of actors, most notably his wife Ariane Ascaride, here collaborating with her husband for the 19th time. She plays Angèle, a successful stage and screen actress, returning to her childhood home in a small, fading fishing village on France’s Mediterranean coast after her aged father Maurice (Fred Ulysse) suffers an irreversible stroke that leaves him only minimally responsive.
The town holds unhappy memories, as it was here that her own little daughter Blanche accidentally drowned while under her father’s care. In Dad’s villa, which has a big curving terrace overlooking the little cove, she reunites with her two brothers, the dutiful Armand (Gérard Meylan), who’d stayed in the village trying to keep their father’s modest restaurant business afloat, and the the sardonic Joseph (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who has recently been forced into early retirement and arrives on the verge of a breakup with his much younger girlfriend, Bérangère (Anaïs Demoustier).
The chemistry between the three main actors is effortlessly familial, and is given lovely texture by a flashback scene, actually lifted from Guédiguian’s 1985 film “Ki Lo Sa?” of the three of them as young people laughing on a day trip to the coast while Bob Dylan’s “I Want You” plays. Other atemporal flourishes are not so successful: a memory of a rowdy village Christmas feels too contemporary to be an image of the long-gone good old days, and a melodramatic envisioning of little Blanche drowning is jarring and oddly artificial, especially since no one was around to actually witness it.
But mostly the film unfolds in the present tense, with generous — sometimes too generous — time allotted to each of the siblings’ personal stocktaking. Added into the mix are new love interests, for Angèle in the form of young fisherman Benjamin (Robinson Stévenin, another Guédiguian regular), and for Bérangère in the shape of Yvan (Yann Trégouët), the son of Martin (Jacques Boudet) and Suzanne (Geneviève Mnich), the aged couple who are Maurice’s only remaining neighbors, and whose dignified but tragic fate provides the film with its most deeply affecting sequence.
There is scarcely an unconvincing note struck throughout, but some of the relationships are almost too carefully mapped out, contributing to a repetitive feel, especially in the baggy middle portion of the film. We probably don’t need quite as much of the lovestruck Benjamin’s theatrically-inclined ardor for Angèle, and Joseph has the mordant wit of the depressive, but also tends to rather tediously reorient innocuous conversations toward worker’s rights and the class system, without there being a particularly sharp point about bourgeois values to be made. Guédiguian is too good at communicating his own interest in his characters to make the slightly complacent pacing that much of an issue, but individual scenes do often feel like they could be sharpened to a finer cutting edge and the film would be a more assertive experience as a result.
Perhaps none of those extraneous moments would seem like time inefficiently spent, though, if it weren’t for Guédiguian’s most puzzling authorial choice: to leave so late the introduction of the story’s most dramatic new element — the discovery of three migrant children, two boys and a girl like the siblings themselves, hiding out in the scrubby woods above the village. This worldview-challenging and priority-changing development is rich with dramatic potential, and thematically on point (they came from the sea that took Blanche away; they are the promise of renewal when so much is dying back). And so its 11th-hour appearance feels like an opportunity missed at best, and at worst like the refugee crisis is being used as narrative spice for the later-life-crises of a comparatively well-to-do white French family.
The inherently picturesque location provides some postcard-ready vistas, but mostly Pierre Milon’s camerawork is unfussy to the point of unremarkable. But then Guédiguian is more of a classical storyteller than a formal stylist and for the most part that serves the film well, investing us its affectionate, fully inhabited portrayals and its wide-view vision of life’s cyclical nature with minimal distraction. It makes “The House by the Sea,” for all its mildness, a gently defiant affirmation that the ebb will always be followed by the flow.