Robert Guédiguian is back to what he does best with his team for this drama set in Marseilles also known as La Villa

Dir: Robert Guédiguian.  France, 2017, 107 mins

Hail, hail, the gang’s all here – or however that translates in French. You generally known what to expect from writer-director Robert Guédiguian – sterling performances from a faithful team of repertory regulars, robust old-school left-wing values, and dramas set in the Marseilles area. It’s a formula that he has occasionally veered away from – in political biopic The Last Mitterand and Resistance drama The Army of Crime - but he’s firmly on home ground in The House by the Sea (La Villa), an ostensibly old-fashioned family drama that proves, despite an awkward final act, to be one of his most satisfying recent films, and indeed the darkest. It won’t make a huge splash, but lovers of French auteur cinema in a downbeat, classical vein will make an appreciative niche audience.

Guédiguian’s cast serve him beautifully, with Jean-Pierre Darroussin playing productively against type

Essentially a chamber drama with the odd breeze of rosemary-scented Provençal fresh air, the story is set in a quiet bay near Marseille, where most of the population has sold up and left. One person who has stayed is elderly restaurateur Maurice (Fred Ulysse), who suffers a stroke at the start, causing his adult children to rush to his side. Joining Armand (Gérard Meylan), who has been running the cheap but quality restaurant, are brother Joseph (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a disillusioned, recently fired executive, and successful actress Angèle (the director’s perennial muse Ariane Ascaride), who has never forgiven Maurice for the tragic incident that took place here.

Also present is Joseph’s much younger girlfriend (Anaïs Demoustier), a pair of elderly neighbours facing their own crisis, and Benjamin (Robinson Stévenin), a young fisherman with a passion for theatre, and for Angèle.

Ascaride, Darroussin, Meylan and Jacques Boudier, who plays neighbour Martin, have been acting together so long in Guédiguian films that their spontaneously nuanced interaction feels telepathic. The sense of having seen them grow older together is delicately played on in this story of mortality and reconciliation with the past – themes piquantly underlined by a clip of some of the actors’ younger selves, in the same location, in Guédiguian’s 1986 film Qui lo sa?.

The crisply scripted drama uses economical strokes to sketch themes of wider social change, signalled by the arrival of soldiers looking for migrants on the coast and (the film’s one serious clunker) a boatful of city slickers clearly scanning for real-estate opportunities. Guédiguian’s social conscience also leads him, in the final reel, to head off on a humanitarian current-affairs tack, as the family befriend some North African migrant children – a strand that might have breathed better as a standalone film, but here feels shoehorned in. Also awkward and overworked is Benjamin’s eager courtship of Angèle, dense with quotations from the poet Claudel.

Guédiguian’s cast serve him beautifully, with Darroussin playing productively against type: usually a hyper-sympa working man, as in 2011’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, here he’s an embittered sourpuss who has acquired some decidedly reactionary prejudices over the years, unless he’s just out to get a rise out of people. As for Ascaride, owner of the most intensely watchable face in French cinema, she gives one of her best performances as a woman unable or reluctant to slough off the pain of the past. Mediterrean settings and lore, as ever, add body to the drama – and if you ever wanted to know how to catch octopus with your feet, this film reveals all.

Production company: Agat Films & Cie

International sales: MK2 Films,

Producers: Robert Guédiguian, Marc Bordure

Screenplay: Robert Guédiguian, Serge Valletti

Cinematography: Pierre Milon

Production design: Michel Vandestien

Editor: Bernard Sasia

Main cast: Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Gérard Meylan, Jacques Boudet, Anaïs Demoustier