The regular major-festival presence of the films of Robert Guédiguian is a curious, if not wholly unwelcome, anomaly. Amid punchier, more provocative, more aesthetically challenging arthouse titles, his work moves to the calmer rhythms of classical naturalism, in which each new title feels more like a new chapter in a career-spanning novel — or a book of interconnected short stories, perhaps — about life and love and social class in the suburbs of Marseille.
Working with the same troupe of excellent actors he has cast in differing permutations through the years, most notably his wife Ariane Ascaride who stars in their twentieth collaboration here, and occupying the same compassionately observed, elegiac register that his mid-to-late middle-age titles have tended to embrace, “Gloria Mundi” is, again, a contemporary, intergenerational, socially conscientious, bittersweet family drama set in the southern French port city. And, at least until an ending marred by some scrappy filmmaking as the story takes a deterministic swerve into melodrama, an engaging one.
This time the now-64-year-old Ascaride plays Sylvie, mother of two adult daughters, Aurore (Lola Naymark) and Mathilde (Anaïs Demoustier), the latter of whom is giving birth to a baby girl as the film begins, to a predictable if effective soundtrack of fetal heartbeats and classical opera. Joining her mother at her hospital bedside are Mathilde’s husband, the proud new father Nicolas (Robinson Stévenin); Aurore and her flashy, coked-up boyfriend Bruno (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet); and the kindly Richard (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), Sylvie’s partner, whom both daughters call Dad even if biologically he is not related to Mathilde. Her birth father Daniel (Gérard Meylan) is absent for the good reason he is incarcerated in Rennes prison, serving out the end of a 20-year sentence for a lethal brawl in which, Sylvie insists, he was defending a friend. The aging, regretful, haiku-writing Daniel’s release from prison, and his desire to be part of his granddaughter’s life, gently initiates the slightly overfamiliar circle-of-life dynamic of the film.
But there are other strings to its bow. If the new news in Guediguian’s last film “The House by the Sea” was the introduction of a subplot about refugees, this time it’s the observation of the gig economy. Initially all the characters are getting by, Sylvie is a hard-working cleaner; Richard a bus driver; Mathilde a retail assistant and Nicholas a fastidiously chic Uber driver, determined to get “nothing but 5 star ratings.”
But as part of the safety-net-less casual workforce, they are each only one stroke of bad luck — one broken arm, one strike, one suspension — away from desperation. It is only Aurore and Bruno who are prospering, and they explicitly do it at the expense of the poor, who come to their shabby cash-for-trash store to sell off electronics and bric-à-brac at a fraction of its worth. Their exploitation of their clientele and their workshop employees, whom they pay under the table, is summed up proudly in a speech Bruno gives at the opening of their second store, in which he extols an Ayn Randian philosophy about life’s winners and losers.
The performances are all strong, although the younger generation — especially the basically awful Aurore and the rapacious horndog Bruno — are given less dimension by Guédiguian, who even in terms of Pierre Milon’s warm-toned, sympathetic photography and Michel Petrossian’s gentle scoring, inevitably favors his peers. But that in itself yields dividends: The interplay between would-be rivals in fatherhood Daniel and Richard is perhaps the most touchingly drawn relationship in the film. And in just a few closeups, revealing the complexity and depth of her response to the return of her old flame, Sylvie too is rounded out and respected. It is unusual to see a woman of Ascaride’s age drawn (especially by a male director and screenwriter duo) with such consideration for her internal life, and Ascaride, much more than her husband’s muse, finds lovely notes to play in Sylvie’s patient, pragmatic grandmother.
Taken as a whole, Guediguian’s filmography starts to look like the one lifelong project, an almost real-time chronicle of France’s boomer generation, whose May ’68 values are so markedly different from their American contemporaries, from their turbulent, idealistic twenties right through to a calmer, more reflective retirement age. So although the Latin phrase “Sic transit gloria mundi” is about the transience of life, which Daniel addresses by writing fragmentary poetry which “seeks out nice moments and fixes them in time,” in a broader sense, “Gloria Mundi” is about continuity: this continuing project of Guédiguian’s to tell the story of his generation with compassion and insight; the continual exploitation of the poor by the wealthy; the continual erosion of France’s erstwhile socialist idealism by modern market forces; and the continuing truism that the young exist to break their parents’ hearts.