I have enjoyed the films of Robert Guédiguian for 20+ years now, with Marius et Jeanette (France, 1997) being at the time of its release a singularly pedestrian pleasure – not pedestrian in the sense of inferior, but in the sense of how Guédiguian seems to make gentle films that progress pleasantly at their own pace, as the French title to The Last Mitterand/Le promeneur du Champ de Mars (France, 2005) would suggest (since it literally means ‘The Walker of the Champ de Mars,’ the latter being a park near the Eiffel Tower in Paris).
It is not that I have seen all of Guédiguian’s films, a good number of which do not get released in the UK, and the back catalogue of which stretches much further than Marius et Jeanette, as La villa itself testifies – since in a wonderful ‘flashback’ moment, the film features footage of three of its leads (Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gérard Meylan) in his earlier Ki Lo Sa? (France, 1986).
As such, I am not a Guédiguian ‘expert’ (I have seen six or seven of his 21 films, with my brain not being certain as to whether I have seen Au fil d’Ariane/Ariane’s Thread, France, 2014).
But it does seem clear that Guédiguian almost always makes films about socialists living in and around his native Marseilles, and almost always featuring the same ensemble of actors, with La villa being no different, as the footage from Ki Lo Sa? also testifies, in that 31 years later, here are Ascaride, Darroussin and Meylan in another film set in exactly the same location, namely the Calanque de Méjean, a small inlet that lies across the bay from Marseilles.
La villa is not a sequel to that film (which at this point in time I have not seen, but which naturally I am curious to), with the three actors playing different characters. Nonetheless, La villa is about the passage of time between those eras, and in particular how the world has changed – and left more or less destitute small communities like Méjean, with its tiny restaurant, the Mange-Tout, being not just a business run by Armand (Meylan) in the film, but also a genuine restaurant to be found in that location.
The film tells the story of three siblings: Armand, Joseph (Darroussin) and Angèle (Ascaride) who return to Méjean following news that their father, Maurice Barberini (Fred Ulysse), has had a stroke. Leftist intellectual Joseph comes with his much-younger fiancée, Bérangère (Anaïs Demoustier), while Angèle is a successful stage and television actress who remains the crush of much-younger local fisherman Benjamin (Robinson Stévenin), who when a youngster saw her on stage in a version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan and never forgot her.
Armand, meanwhile, has remained all of his life in Méjean, running the Mange-Tout with his father and living opposite Maurice’s old friends, Martin (Jacques Boudet) and his wife Suzanne (Geneviève Mnich), whose son Yvan (Yann Trégouët) is a successful doctor about to move to London to open a new lab.
What ensues are in some senses the usual confrontations with the past that are to be expected from the family return film. Angèle is mad at her father for allowing her daughter Blanche (Esther Seignon) to drown while in his charge, while Joseph realises that he is losing Bérangère to Yvan – much as Angèle must struggle with being the fantasy of Benjamin.
Armand must work with the idea that Méjean has increasingly empty houses, inhabited only on occasion by rich holidaymakers and not by permanent residents who live and make a community there. Indeed, Martin and Suzanne are being priced out of Méjean by landlords that will make far more money from schemes like AirBnB (not named in the film) than they will from permanent and long-standing tenants.
The film repeatedly shows the viaduct over the calanque, and which carries the Transport express régional (TER) trains that bypass Méjean, taking commuters and tourists instead to other coastal resorts in and around Marseilles.
In other words, while very beautiful, Méjean has kind of been left behind by progress – at least for the time being. For, we see tourist prospectors visiting the small harbour in a motorboat as the film progresses, while Bérangère, who seems to work in PR, also can see great things happening in the village.
Such get-rich schemes, however, run counter to the ethos of Armand, Joseph and also their father, who set up the Mange-Tout in order to offer cheap but good food to honest, working French people – and not exclusive restaurants and resorts for only the rich.
Indeed, Martin discusses at length how the Barberini family home, the villa from which the film takes its title, was built collectively by the whole village, including its impressive balcony that overlooks the bay and on to which Armand and Joseph daily move their father so that he can observe its happenings in his quasi-catatonic, post-stroke state.
In this way, the film offers up the usual pedestrian Guédiguian fare, as we see the characters walk around the bay and up in the surrounding hills, leading an ‘honest’ and socialist life in the face of the trains, cars, motorbikes and other modes of transport that we see people use to get in and out of the village, or simply to pass it by.
However, where the film gets particularly interesting for me is a sequence in which Angèle dips her foot into a rockpool, holding it there deliberately so as eventually to lure out…
… an octopus, which clings to Angèle’s leg and which later the family will eat at a dinner between the three siblings, Bérangère and Benjamin.
Now, I have written recently in my blog concerning Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico/USA, 2018) about how David H Fleming and I are writing a book about cephalopods and cinema (cephalopods being octopuses, squids, cuttlefish and nautiluses).
We have provisionally called our book Kinoteuthis Infernalis: The Emergence of Chthulumedia. ‘Kinoteuthis infernalis’ means ‘squid cinema from hell,’ not least because we are looking at films, often horror and science fiction movies, that feature cephalopods and/or other tentacular aliens/monsters that come to destroy (human life on) Earth – or at least this is what the protagonists of the films suspect.
‘Chthulumedia,’ meanwhile, means media in/as the chthulucene, an era that Donna J Haraway theorises as replacing the anthropocene. If the anthropocene is the era in which humans have basically altered their planet such that they have brought about mass extinction and the creation of conditions that might well see humanity’s own demise, then the chthulucene is a ‘posthuman’ era in which humans may not necessarily go extinct, but in which certainly we shrink in population, learn to live more harmoniously with our planet, or perhaps go extinct and/or evolve into (or with) new/other life forms.
Cephalopods and the chthulucene are connected because HP Lovecraft famously called his world-ending monster Cthulhu, with that creature being tentacular and octopus-like. And so while Haraway does not much like Lovecraft, the connection between cephalopods and the similarly-named chthulucene remains.
More than this, though, is the fact that cephalopods are often considered to be ‘intelligent aliens,’ a lifeform so different from humans and yet with which we share our planet, that it challenges our anthropocentric belief that we are the be-all-and-end-all of intelligent life (although if we do consider ourselves the only really existing lifeforms [we are all that be], then we probably will bring about the destruction of the planet [we will end all]).
Furthermore, the cephalopod is a key metaphor for the tentacular reach of capitalism in the era of digital technology and globalisation. Much like the octopus, which does not so much have separate organs as have its whole body perform all possible functions at once (apart from ingest and egest), everything in the contemporary era is connected.
In other words, our globalised planet sees techno capital itself emerge as a kind of intelligent alien (the birth, if you will, of the singularity/artificial, digital intelligence) that may well replace humans, or at least play a part in our evolution, while perhaps also literally signalling the destruction, or at least a resetting of the planet, as the oceans quite literally rise (as Cthulhu rises from the ocean) to drown humans and to replace us with other lifeforms.
Perhaps the main issue raised by the chthulucene, then, is whether we as humans are willing to let ourselves go – be that by evolving into new lifeforms or by simply allowing ourselves to die – or whether we will take our whole planet with us as we seek not to die but to live forever.
In this way, cinema in the chthulucene is often about children and childbirth, as I have mentioned in several other blogs (including the one on Roma), since it is about whether we want to have offspring, which by definition are different from us, or whether we want ourselves to remain as we are forever.
With this brief description of the theories that David and I try to develop in mind, hopefully it is clear how La villa might similarly be reflecting on such themes as capitalist development, globalisation and childbirth – even if it is nothing like a big budget spectacle along the lines of Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), about which David and I have written already, and which functions as a film also about tentacles, aliens and childbirth.
But where are the aliens in La villa, you might be thinking?
Well, crucially, La villa also has as one of its central premises the intrusion into the Barberini’s restaurant of some soldiers who are on the lookout for illegal immigrants whom they suspect as having arrived on the shores of France after discovering a wrecked boat in the vicinity of Méjean.
Joseph in particular is frosty towards the soldiers, and before long he and Armand discover three Arab children (played by Haylana Bechir, Ayoub Ouaed and Giani Roux) hiding up in the hills around the village.
They take in the three children, crucially clothing them in garments still in the Barberinis’ possession following the death of Blanche.
In other words, and as is fitting for a socialist like Guédiguian, the trio are invested in welcoming aliens, or what Haraway would call ‘making kin’ with others. Indeed, the Barberinis treat these aliens as they would any human, i.e. as they would treat themselves, which in turn leads us to understand how all-too-often humans treat each other not as kin, but as precisely aliens, monsters, or lifeforms about which we do not have to care or for whom we do not have to take care.
Guédiguian’s film is in some ways straightforward: Angèle becomes a kind of angel who will help these children, while the father figure (Maurice/God) can only look on silently and without intervening as his children learn to live according to his socialist principles.
In other ways, the film is complex, in that the lead soldier is played by Diouc Koma, an actor born in Mali and whose character Joseph berates for not appreciating the work that he did as an old socialist – presumably in helping to push the postcolonial message and to establish the equality of French citizens from its former colonies (an ongoing problem in French politics and daily life).
That said, the soldier does seem to express some shame at the treatment of refugees, especially children, once they have been found – telling Armand over a coffee that they are either sent home or put into orphanages, a fate that in either case is sub-optimal at best. That is, while he has a job to do, his politics may not align wholly with the results that his job achieves.
It is not simply a case of ‘oh, there’s an octopus in this film and therefore it must be about globalisation, the death of the local, the arrival of aliens, the future of humanity, childbirth, the relationship between the land and the sea, and learning perhaps to accept death’ – even though this is true of La villa, especially as Martin and Suzanne end up committing joint suicide for reasons that I shall discuss below.
Rather, the octopus arrives precisely at a time when Angèle and her brothers ruminate on their father’s legacy, with the soldiers first arriving at their house during the octopus meal, during which we also hear Benjamin sing Angèle’s praises for her performance in the Brecht play, and explain how theatre allowed him to understand that the world need not be only as it is, but that new worlds can be created.
In other words, the octopus appears at the moment when the characters express an openness towards a new world – that of making kin with aliens and the way in which theatre (and by extension cinema and art more generally) is itself a kind of alien that expands our horizons and perhaps even helps us to evolve… which stands in distinct contrast to those who would try to keep our world as it is by reaffirming borders and not letting aliens enter to change it.
Even though Benjamin has lived all of his life in Méjean, and even though he fishes and fixes nets for what must be a pretty meagre living (even if he is in harmony with the sea?), he nonetheless is open to change.
This is perhaps why he desires Angèle, who is much older than he is. For, at least as far as Guédiguian might push it, this desire for the older woman is ‘queer’ enough for La villa to suggest that making kin is also to love against the grain – to love what the law forbids, if the law also is about maintaining fixed and strict boundaries.
Joseph’s love for Bérangère would express something different, but as he learns that he must return to writing in order to create another world with ink, so must he let go of Bérangère and allow her to go with Yvan, who himself will meet her in London (i.e. on alien terrain).
Notably, Yvan rides a fast motorcycle that Bérangère takes for a spin early on in the film – during an initial dinner in which it is clearly signalled that the two younger adults have an attraction for each other. Bérangère, meanwhile, is often making work calls on Skype or equivalent on her laptop. That is, both Bérangère and Yvan are equated with new technology.
But Guédiguian does not dismiss these ‘millennial’ behaviours outright – much as the suicide of Martin and Suzanne is not necessarily a case of ‘learning to die,’ not least because part of what spurs them on is their impending homelessness and their refusal to let Yvan take care of them financially (although mainly this would seem to be because they want him to lead his own life, and do not want to live forever, even if in some senses they are also destroyed by a cruel and relentless capitalist system).*
Change is coming and as a new world emerges, an older one dies. Guédiguian’s use of footage from Ki Lo Sa? suggests his personal nostalgia for that older world, even as he hopes that many of its (romanticised) principles will remain in the new one (evolution is not complete abandonment, after all).
That new world may be heartless and cruel in its bid for money and the separation of the luxury-filled rich from the poor, who are excluded increasingly from those luxurious places (Méjean as increasingly a holiday resort and not a local community, whose beauty becomes privatised, implicitly by the cost of access if not explicitly by putting up a wall around it, as opposed to being a commons that is open to all).
However, that new world could also be generous and kind towards aliens, and open to those who come to our shores seeking help as a result of war and trouble in their own land.
By remembering the better lessons that the older generation can teach us, we may yet be able to cultivate the latter, even as new technologies that promise connection in some ways also hasten division.
As Maurice’s children and the refugee children shout their names under the viaduct and create echoes, La villa shows us the father sat watching the harbour, and turning his head towards the sound as the camera pans up to the sky.
To be childlike and to find wonder in echoes, subverting the viaduct by enjoying its sounds rather than it being simply a tool for loudly carrying the moneyed over Méjean, bypassing it for the sake of speed and convenience. Perhaps this is how to create a commons, even if under threat as capital comes to fill in the gaps that this calanque at present remains. And perhaps that lesson will echo for a long time to come, being a sound that we can all hear and from which we can all learn.**
* A plot hole that is never explored is the consequence of Martin and Suzanne’s suicide. Assuming an autopsy, it would be clear that they die from an overdose. It would then not be too much of a step to work out where they got their drugs from, that being Yvan, their doctor son. Even if inadvertently, one wonders, then, that Yvan might be struck off and/or have his career destroyed for assisting in the death of his parents (although I am not sure how this would work under French law).
** I am still troubled by the way in which the protagonists of the film eat the octopus. That is, they lure the alien in only to kill and to consume it, even as the film wants to be about welcoming aliens (the children are not similarly consumed, e.g. by selling them into slavery). The octopus totally fits the film and turns it into an example of what David and I call ‘chthulucinema.’ But at the same time, the film’s carnivorousness does mitigate somewhat some of the kin-making that I have tried to suggest above and which the film otherwise embraces – including at least land-based animals as Armand sets up a post that delivers grain and water for rabbits and birds to consume, and at which he finds the eldest refugee, as if refugees were indeed not human but animals – at least in the eyes of the law. Notably, Armand is also invested in protecting the environment from fire, giving to the film a sense of ecological care, too (even if Armand achieves this by creating pathways that divide the land).