UN AIR DE FAMILLE

Directed by Cedric Klapisch

Written by Klapisch, Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnes Jaoui

Based on a play by Bacri and Jaoui

With Bacri, Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine Frot, Claire Maurier and Wladimir Yordanoff

Distributed by Leisure Time Features

***1/2


If I were French, it's probable that I wouldn't be as enthusiastic about UN AIR DE FAMILLE as I am. Both CAHIERS DU CINEMA and POSITIF were disappointed by it, and one French critic I know complained that Klapisch has crossed over to the Tradition of Quality. I'd phrase the matter a little more generously; judging from AIR and WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY (the only two of his four films I've seen), Klapisch lies midway between commercial French comedy and the modernism of Denis, Jacquot, Téchiné, etc. With WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY, he leaned closer to the latter; with AIR, he leans closer to the former.

AIR was a huge hit in France, but oddly, it opened here a year after WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY, which was less commercially successful over there. (Here, it was the most popular French film of 1997, for whatever that's worths.) And it's being released by the tiny Leisure Time Features, while WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY was released by Sony Pictures Classics. Even if American distributors disagree, it's probably the more commercial film of the two. It's certainly a much more straightforward comedy. In some ways, the two films are mirror images of one another. UN AIR DE FAMILLE rarely leaves one set; WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY was shot mostly in exteriors and real apartments, features a largely non-professional cast, and has a jazzlike, improvised quality. One of Klapisch's most impressive achievements in UN AIR DE FAMILLE lies in the way he turns a familiar premise (a birthday party brings out the hidden tensions in a dysfunctional family) and characters who could easily have remained types into something worthy of Mike Leigh. Still, UN AIR DE FAMILLE doesn't quite have the amount of subtext that WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY did. What you see is what you get.

Every Friday night, the Menard family gathers at a bar, Au Pere Tranquille ("Sleepy Dad's.") This particular Friday night, no one is particularly tranquil. The bar owner, Henri (Jean-Pierre Bacri), is more than usually surly after his wife decides to leave him for a week. The first to arrive is his sister Betty (Agnes Jaoui), an angry 30-year-old woman who works at her brother Phillippe's (Wladimir Yordanoff) computer firm. This night, she's in a surprisingly good mood after telling off her boss. She immediately gets into an argument with Henri, and it quickly becomes apparent that the rest of the family thinks of her as a loud-mouthed, pathetically loveless spinster. However, unbeknownst to them, she's been dating Denis (Jean-Pierre Daroussin), the bar's waiter. Phillippe is nervous because he's just appeared on a TV news show representing the company. Additionally, it's his wife Yolande's (Catherine Frot) birthday, and his mother (Claire Maurier) has come along with the couple.

The American poster bills certain characters as "the unmarried daughter," "the favorite son," 'the not-so-favorite son" and "the birthday girl." (And ironically, they use the same photo for both sons.) Initially, the characters do seem like types, people we can easily pin down. Yet they grow more complicated the more time we spend with them. Betty eventually comes to realize the consequences her actions can have for other people, and Henri shows a vulnerability that one would never have guessed was there, judging from his initial behavior.

With one exception (a scene where Henri goes to the building where his wife is staying), Bacri, Jaoui and Klapisch have made no attempt to "open" up the play or make it "more cinematic." It was a good decision. Rather than tacking on exteriors or adding dozens of new scenes, Klapisch has made the play truly cinematic via smart use of lighting and 'Scope framing. The lighting almost feels like another character, and he gets some particularly imaginative effects when he frames actors in a mirror or a glass. Klapisch does a wonderful job of emphasizing the characters' essential isolation and alienation from each other through framing.

As Mike D'Angelo wrote last year, UN AIR DE FAMILLE is the kind of entertaining film whose virtues are easy to overlook precisely because they're so simple (skillful writing and acting, and direction that matches them). Yet it would be a shame to overlook this film for these reasons. Comedies this funny and/or family dramas so full of pathos don't come around every week.