À la vie, à la mort ! isn't a conte de l'Estaque, although seven years later it was to be the title of an album by Johnny Halliday: it is an expression of an eternal link between (usually two) people. But then, Guédiguian's films are peoplescapes, intimate links between a group of people who don't at all necessarily have to have genetic relationships. Joseph Mai's Robert Guédiguian (2017) includes an interesting comment on Guy Standing's book The Precariat (2011), which is a very useful way into Guédiguian's films, particularly À la vie, à la mort !: the precariat is a new class of people created by runaway capitalism, victims of the ruthless capitalist process, the laissés-pour-compte in a constant precarious financial situation worrying about where their money is coming from to pay the next bill.
À la vie, à la mort ! begins with a long sequence of a commercial district of a town which could be anywhere in the developed world, although I was strongly reminded of American malls, where end-of-history capitalism has taken over, where Wallmart is killing towns but is mercifully banned from New York City.
Outside the centre commercial in Marseille, clustering around a bar called Le Perroquet bleu, we have a motley group of members of the precariat: José (Gérard Meylan) who owns the bar, but is struggling to keep his head above water, particularly as his wife Josiane (Pascale Roberts, still young-looking but in her early sixties) is becoming embarrassed doing a striptease in front of her ageing customers; Patrick (Jacques Gamblin) is without a job and married to Marie-Sol (Ariane Ascaride) who works as a cleaner; and then there's Jaco (Jean-Pierre Daroussin), who's lost his job and and is becoming alcoholic. I could go on, but that's probably enough for a general picture.
Then Marie-Sol persuades a reluctant Jaco to have sex with her as she wants a child, José is having sex with young drug addict prostitute Vénus (Laetitia Pesenti) and Jaco starts to hit his wife, his two daughters hate him, and they leave him to his own devices.
Jaco literally ends up on the street, José is desperate to find a new stripper and Marie-Sol leaves her job because her boss is hitting on her sexually and we have a clear idea of the precariat. Then José sells his Merc to help things, but Patrick kills himself not because Marie-Sol is pregnant because she's cuckolded him but because he wants his insurance money to help his friends, and although this shows the strength of friendship rather than the family it's still pretty bleak, but brilliant.