Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Un Air de Famille

By Marc Savlov

NOVEMBER 30, 1998: 

D: Cédric Klapisch; with Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Catherine Frot, Agnes Jaoui, Claire Maurier, Wladimir Yordanoff, Alain Guillo, Sophie Simon. (Not Rated, 107 min.)

In a sleepy French village, an extended family gathers to ostensibly celebrate the 35th birthday of one of their own. What follows is a dark comedy of familial sniping and underhanded potshots that plays like Woody Allen's Interiors without the humor. It's a rich, Francophilian feast of bad manners and cold conduct, with the occasional laugh rising to the surface like a femur in a waterlogged necropolis. Whether or not you find this dry, bitter spitefest funny depends on your tolerance for stagy French versions of Virginia Woolf (which this echoes) or Ron Howard's Parenthood (which this would like to echo). Bacri plays Henri, the owner of a perpetually empty bar and restaurant presciently named "the Sleepy Dad." It's here the family gathers: unmarried-though-30 sister Betty (Jaoui), rising software star brother Philippe (Yordanoff) and his mal anniversaire wife Yolande (Frot), and their iron-willed mother (Maurier). Also along for the hateful duration are barkeep Denis (Darroussin), who has been having a relationship with Betty, and Henri's arthritic, immobile pooch Caruso, whom Denis accurately refers to as "like a rug, but alive." Ouch. Malignant humor such as that is the order of the day, and as Un Air de Famille progresses, and as the liquor flows, it becomes readily apparent that this is yet another example of that great cinematic tradition, un famille de dysfunctionnalle. As mother offers caustic asides and backhanded compliments, of a sort, to her brood, they in turn stew in their own spine-free juices, and eventually erupt on each other, offering potshots in favor of praise. Phillippe appears in danger of losing his tenuous computer position after appearing on television earlier in the day while sporting a bad tie, Betty is fuming over her soured relationship with Denis, and Henri has just received news that his wife will not be attending the evening's festivities and may very well not show up again at all. This group makes Al and Peg Bundy look like the Cosby clan by comparison, but Klapisch (When the Cat's Away), adapting from a stage play by Bacri and Jaoui, somehow manages to keep things from slipping into the emotional abyss with some clever, painful flashbacks (to a happier time, natch), and Suze-induced humor (most of which comes from the increasingly blotto Yolande, who just can't seem to keep her mouth shut). As in the play, the film takes place almost exclusively within the confines of the Sleepy Dad, and as such it suffers a tad from the staging. This is, of course, a war of words, some as sharp as concertina wire, some humorously muddled, but all of which are flung (or spat, as the case may be) with electric vitriol. While not everyone's cup of bile, Un Air de Famille scores points for its unrelenting ill-humor and excellent ensemble cast. Even Caruso, the saddest dog in the world, manages to snag a few bleakly genuine chuckles. It's sick, yes, but oh how very French.
3.0 stars


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