Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees is still shaking sand out of her shoes from reviewing this low-key French film.
"We're all waiting for something."—Albert (Patrick Lizana)
First-time French director Julie Lopes-Curval made a splash with Bord de Mer (Seaside), winning the 2002 Cannes prize for Best First Film. Seaside is a reflective, character-driven film, with a distinctive and often lonely visual style that Lopes-Curval says was influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper. Lopes-Curval cites other influences as well in her notes to this film, but she makes no mention of the filmmaker whose work I was most reminded of—John Sayles (Casa de los Babys, Lone Star). Like Sayles, Lopes-Curval crafts her film around the observation of lives in progress, offering a series of snapshots of the interaction of characters; and, also like Sayles, she makes the location—here, a once-ritzy beach resort town—central to the film. Thus, fans of John Sayles as well as of foreign films should appreciate the quiet, contemplative merits of Seaside.
Facts of the Case
There seem to be only two main industries in the small French town of Cayeux, where Seaside takes place: tourism and the pebble quarry. During the summer, the usually placid tenor of life becomes more lively, as vacationers, some of them regulars, fill up the beach huts. This is the season when year-round residents like Paul (Jonathan Zaccaï) can get work as lifeguards, although other year-rounders, like his girlfriend Marie (Hélène Fillières), don't experience any real change in their lives when the tourists arrive. Marie works as a sorter in the pebble quarry, where she sometimes comes into contact with Albert (Patrick Lizana), whose great-grandfather founded the quarry. Ever since Albert's mother Odette (Lilian Rovère) sold the quarry, he has been existing in a kind of dreary half-life there, conscious that the early retirement foisted on some longtime employees has left them adrift in a town that offers no other options.
One of those set adrift is Paul's mother, Rose (Bulle Ogier, L'Amour Fou), who now spends her time feeding coins into a slot machine (except when Paul and his exasperated sister, Albertine, catch her and rout her out). Once she and Odette were both pebble sorters, but Odette married well, and now she belongs to a different world, a world full of travel and variety. When Rose's gambling habit places her in dire straits, she knows she could go to Odette for help, but she may not be able to bridge the distance that has grown up between them. As winter sets in, Marie and Albert seem to be drifting out of their respective relationships and trying to find respite from the emptiness of life among the pebbles.
Although Seaside is the literal translation of Bord de Mer and is the title featured on the packaging and menus of the film, the subtitle that comes up during the title credits is actually Pebbles, and in a way I think that title suits this film much better. The landscape of this unlikely vacation spot is characterized by pebbles, both at the beach and at the quarry, creating a colorless, desolate, and treacherous surface against which the characters live and work. It's a strange paradox that pebbles should support the life of this island while making it so visually sterile. Pebbles are also a surprisingly apt metaphor for those who live here. As Lopes-Curval observes in her director's notes, the characters of the film resemble pebbles in that "they are transformed by the action of rubbing up against each other." That is, their interactions help to shape them, in some cases smoothing away roughness, in other cases uncovering elements unseen on the surface. In such a small town, the inhabitants are always being thrown against each other, so like pebbles being flung about by the sea they are constantly undergoing friction and thus change.
The pace of this change, however, can seem quite slow; indeed, often this film's unnamed setting feels like a place where nothing ever changes or even could, except at a glacial pace. Seaside observes moments in its characters' lives over the course of an entire year, and sometimes it's difficult to see that anything is actually happening until we reach the end of the time span; even at the end of the film, the changes in some characters are still nascent. Again, I was reminded of John Sayles's work, particularly films like Sunshine State, where we see glimpses of characters that we have to add up for ourselves, and some of the characters make us work harder than others. Marie is the character who seems to link all the others, and in a way she is the most difficult to get to know. She often has a distant, almost brooding look, and often she responds to conversational overtures in unexpected and disconcerting ways; when Paul says he wants them to move in together, she says idly, "What for?" It's as if her mind is somewhere else, but she herself doesn't seem to know where it is. Throughout the film we see that she is somehow at loose ends, but we realize this more than she seems to. When she walks away from her job one day we have seen it coming, but we don't get the sense that she has. Marie doesn't seem to analyze her life; she never talks about wanting to get away, or to find some meaning to her life more than what is offered by her conveyer-belt job and baffled boyfriend, but we feel a pull drawing her away from them.
Her relationship with Paul is strained not only by her sometimes passive attitude but by the growing problem of Rose's gambling habit. After having run through her entire pension and mortgaging her house, she ends up moving in with Paul and Marie, leaving them little privacy. The complications of parent-child dynamics are explored not only in the relationship of Paul and Rose, who has now become the dependent one in their relationship, but in the interactions of other characters as well. Albert, who was kept on at the factory as a condition of the sale, doesn't feel a connection to his work; it seems to be Odette's will rather than his own that keeps him at the quarry, but his mother still compares him unfavorably to his successful brother (who does not, of course, live in this town), and so Albert seems to be pleasing no one by keeping his job there, not even his optimistic wife, Lucille. Perhaps because he senses a kinship with Marie, he makes overtures to her, but she is very aware of the difference in their situations and doesn't make things easy for him.
Acting in Seaside is uniformly natural and convincing. There aren't any big monologues or shameless bids for critical acclaim; many of the moments we see are so much like ordinary, even banal, conversation that it is only through the accumulation of such moments that we begin to sense the undercurrents that are taking place. The atmosphere of the film is immeasurably indebted to the work of cinematographer Stephan Massis; with Lopes-Curval he creates a look that is filled with the blank, clear light of the seashore, scoured clean by wind and sand, almost bleak but not unattractive. Such a landscape forces both us and the characters to look inward, since the prospect offers so little, and thus it's an excellent catalyst for the story.
Lopes-Curval admirably escapes the trap into which some inexperienced directors fall: that of overdirecting, interfering too much with a film in an effort to stamp a distinct mark on it. Seaside is indeed distinct, but in a low-key, nearly offhand way that is surprisingly assured for a debut film. Her screenplay, written with François Favrat, likewise doesn't overachieve; it is plausible and subtle without being downright cryptic. Even the use of music is restrained and tactful—which can't be said of the music itself (by Naked), which tries to be unusual and quirky in a way that the film itself is too smart to attempt.
Audiovisual quality is quite strong. The picture is clean and crisp, as is the audio, which also features strong separation. Unlike the visual composition, audio in Seaside isn't a crucial element, since this is a very quiet film, but it's nice to hear natural sounds like the surf and seagulls so crisply. The English subtitles, I should note, are mandatory; they cannot be turned off, and there is no dub track. Extras are modest but varied: We get a photo gallery of ten movie stills; biographies of Lopes-Curval and Bulle Ogier, the most prominent among the cast members; and "Director's Notes," six screens' worth of text in which Lopes-Curval discusses the conception of the film, a particularly welcome extra. There is also a gallery of trailers for other foreign and independent films, although no trailer for Seaside itself is included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My references to John Sayles's films will probably have alerted many readers to the likelihood that Seaside will not be a fast-paced, action-packed film. Indeed, it is not. Viewers who are not prepared to be patient and observant will find it slow going indeed. I also found it a bit tricky to follow the action when so many of the twentyish cast members resembled each other: At times it seemed like all the young men were interchangeable and all the young women had long brown hair that fell in their faces. Consequently, it took me some time to get the characters sorted out, and I found that when I backed up and re-watched some scenes after I had gotten a fix on all the characters I caught on a lot better to the progression of their lives. Thus, you may want to plan on taking your time with Seaside. It's not an experience to rush through; after all, since we're watching a year in these people's lives (if only the highlights), we can't really expect it to fly by.
Seaside is an intriguing, unsentimental little slice of life. It definitely won't suit all tastes, but then it doesn't make the mistake of trying to do so, either, which is a point in its favor. Writer-director Julie Lopes-Curval has started out strong, and it should be exciting to see how she develops in her future work.
Not guilty. The inhabitants of Seaside are free to go about their lives—although the court encourages them to try a change of scene, for their own good.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Bios for Director Julie Lopes-Curval and Actor Bulle Ogier
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