Un Air de Famille (France, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Un Air de Famille, the fourth film from French director Cedric Klapisch, is a study of a dysfunctional family on the verge of blowing apart. While this isn't exactly an original topic, Klapisch's approach is vastly different from what we have come to expect from this sort of motion picture. There's no overwrought melodrama, no sudden moment of great personal triumph, and no real catharsis. Instead, what Un Air de Famille offers is one-hundred ten minutes of discovery through dialogue, as the characters spar with each other, and, as the film wears on, gradually shed their carefully-erected disguises and allow their true selves to show.

And what dialogue it is! Adapted by Klapisch and authors Agnes Jaoui and Jean Pierre Bacri from the popular stage play of the same name, Un Air de Famille offers one brilliantly-constructed conversation after another. With the undercurrent of vicious wit that runs through many of the characters' lines, it's possible to see Un Air de Famille as more of a dark comedy than a drama. There's no denying that the film is talky, but it's talky in the way that an Eric Rohmer movie is verbose - the dialogue, more than anything else, is the point of the movie, not a means to an end. There is virtually no action in the picture, and only a few scenes take place outside of the bar/restaurant that is the setting for one evening's interaction.

The main characters are a trio of very different siblings. There's Philippe (Wladimir Yordanoff), the suave, successful one, who arrives at a family dinner immediately after finishing a television interview. The dinner, a birthday get-together for Philippe's insecure wife, Yolande (Catherine Frot), is being held at the restaurant managed by Philippe's brother, Henri (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a dour man whose wife has recently left him. Then there's Philippe and Henri's younger sister, Betty (Agnes Jaoui), whose leather jacket is just one sign of her ongoing rebellion against convention. Also in attendance for the night's "festivities" are the siblings' domineering mother (Claire Maurier), and a bartender named Denis (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who is secretly involved with Betty.

Things don't begin well, as Betty and Henri engage in a frosty conversation before Betty unceremoniously dumps Denis. When Philippe shows up, the evening's decline accelerates. Nervous about his performance, he begins fishing for compliments, but none are forthcoming. Mother's arrival exacerbates tensions as the siblings begin sniping at each other and anyone else within verbal reach. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that first impressions aren't always accurate, and that the supposedly-affable Philippe may be far less caring and humane than his sour-faced brother. Betty begins to realize this as we do, and her attitude gradually changes. The recognition that she has been wrong about her brothers all along gives her the impetus to truly defy her family for the first time.

It's no surprise that every member of Klapisch's cast does a superlative job - after all, they played these characters for nine months on stage before making the transition to film. The actors are intimately familiar with their alter-egos and with each other, and that contributes to the movie's authenticity. Not only isn't there a weak performance in Un Air de Famille, but there's not a mediocre or artificial moment. It's not difficult to understand why Catherine Frot and Jean-Pierre Darroussin won Cesars for their work, although the other actors are equally deserving of such an honor.

Un Air de Famille is nothing like Klapisch's previous film, When the Cat's Away. That movie, which used non-professional actors and relied on spontaneity and improvisation, was a loose, often delightfully funny affair. Un Air de Famille, on the other hand, has been meticulously planned and executed. Klapisch carefully considered how best to make the transition from stage to film, and, while the movie doesn't really "open up" the play, the director uses the lighting to good effect and has elected to film in Cinemascope to fit more of the characters into each frame. These choices, along with several others, mean that Un Air de Famille satisfies as a cinematic experience, not merely as a filmed play.

All of the events of Un Air de Famille take place over a four-hour period, meaning that the film unfolds almost in real time. It would be interesting to see how the characters react to each other in the future, since the events of this dinner demand changes in every relationship that is explored. By the time the closing credits unfold, each member of the family has learned something new about everyone else, and we, the viewers, have come to understand and appreciate the complexities that define their interaction. In that way, Un Air de Famille is a wonderfully rich and intelligent exploration of family dynamics.

Un Air de Famille (France, 1996)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1