It's Yolanda's (Catherine Frot) birthday, and she would simply appreciate a good time. Her in-laws seize the day, however, as an opportunity to air their egos - like dirty laundry. Her husband Philippe (Vladimir Yordanoff) has appeared on television on behalf of the corporation where he is #4 in rank, and the entire family is expected to review him. Their honesty is less than appreciated, and Philippe falls apart bit by bit as they all assemble at the bar run by his brother Henri (Jean-Pierre Bacri).
The bar is like a manor house for the Menards, Papa Menard having been the proprietor before Henri took over. Its name is telling: "Au pere tranquille" or "The Peaceful Father" - peaceful only because he has shuffled off his mortal coil, leaving his all too lively family to provoke and disturb each other - right down to the family dog that is old and paralyzed, an all-too-symbolic object of affection.
Betty (Agnes Jaqoui) is the nonconformist sister who refuses to bow to traditions like gifts or anything that will put her out. She also happens to be having an affair with the waiter Denis (Jean-Pierre Daroussin) at Au pere tranquille, a gentle soul who is one of those barkeep/philosopher types, and yet dismissed by the Menard family as a servant in frequent displays of class-consciousness.
Henri's wife keeps them waiting until it's too late to go anywhere else, and the party takes place at Au pere tranquille, and it's enough to wake up the Pere. The dialogue has a sharp ear for the jibes and jabs of family gatherings, where somebody - make that everybody - always winds up getting hurt. Un Air de Famille is as telling of modern relationships as Jean Renoir's Les Regles du Jeux (Rules of the Game) was of its era.
Klapisch is a far more expressionistic director than Renoir, and he uses the mirrored surfaces and dark corners of a closed bar to great effect, so that we see the characters sitting at odd angles from each other or sinking into darkness, as they move in and out of the action. The pace of the film is contemplative - which is a way of saying slow, but it implies that the lack of speed gives the viewer time to think about what s/he's watching.
Since we are very much in the position of voyeurs, we need time to judge and reconsider our judgements, because the characters' moral and ethical dimensions keep shifting. For example, as Henri goes off to find his missing wife, various family members opine on his likely success. "Begging never wins women," pronounces Mama. But the faces of the other two women beg to differ. They look like they would give almost anything to be begged to come back to their men. Instead, they're just sort of stuck with them - sans melodrama.
The low-key confidence of Klapisch's film rests not only on the directorial glue he provides for the ensemble but also on the improvisational work that produced such a solid play. My only reservation is about the necessity of the flashbacks from childhood, primarily of a bedroom scene where the three Menard kids have piled into bed with Mama and Papa, where a rollicking turns into rough-housing then winds up with Papa beating on Henri. The rest can be deduced from that and Mama's dictum that her two sons were born the way they are: Philippe to succeed and Henri to fail. Thus it has always been and will always be - because Mama made it so, thank you, Monsieur Freud.
Viewers may well identify with different characters, depending on our own proclivities and positions within the bosoms of our families. Some may even dig the dog, which offers the familiar feeling of paralytic snoozing through great family dramas, because you trust your family just enough not to put you down.
"Un Air de Famille" has the rare quality of being both significant and likeable. The ensemble achieves a level of intimacy that lends credibility to the characters and their family resemblance, but Klapisch gets the credit. Right now, he's probably wheeling and dealing with agents for the remake rights - only to prove once again the impossibility of Hollywood capturing that je ne sais quoi of French cinema.
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