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Un air de famille (1996)
a sweet tale of family dynamics
'Un air de Famille' takes (as one might deduce from the title) 'Family' as its subject. Specifically, it centres upon one middle-class family in an unnamed town somewhere in France. This lack of specification of location makes the focus of the film abundantly clear; the petty rivalries, failed ambitions and unspoken resentments that characterise the 'family'.
As such, it is very well executed, with a funny and subtle script originating from the play by Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui who also play, respectively, the family 'loser' Henri and his sister, Betty. It deals with the universal truth that we, as adults, constantly struggle with the stereotypes that our families thrust upon us as children. Henri is 'always screwing up', and Phillippe (Wladimir Yordanoff), the elder brother is the shining star that can do no wrong, at least in the eyes of their formidable matriarch 'Maman', played with terrifying reality and stomach-turning implacability by Claire Maurier. Betty, as a girl, 'didn't count' and as a result seems to shrink from responsibility and commitment at every opportunity, turning to her brother for work and rejecting a relationship with the sweet bartender, Denis (Jean-Pierre Darroussin).
The clash of these conflicting personalities takes place in one evening, as the family assemble to celebrate the birthday of Yolande, Phillippe's sweet and unappreciated wife. The is over-shadowed by Phillipe's anxiety over a two minute TV appearance and the disappearance of Henri's wife, played out against the backdrop of the seemingly bottomless insensitivity of their mother.
The dialogue is sensitive and gently comedic, as are the familiar and mundane situations the characters find themselves in, creating a touching and memorable story. However it is perhaps this that is the central problem of the film; dialogue and character is so much the focus that the film-makers appear to have deemed it unnecessary to transpose the action from play to film. As a result, 'Un Air de Famille' is incredibly static, the action taking place almost entirely in one building, Henri's dilapidated and 'undistinguished' café. While almost total uniformity of location can be an interesting and effective device in film (Lumets's 'Twelve Angry Men' being the most obvious example), the choice in this context appears careless and unimaginative, leaving the viewer (or at least this viewer) wondering what the claustrophobia was in aid of.
This is not to suggest that there is no creative film technique in 'Un Air de Famille', indeed, its use of mirrors and reflections as frequent counterpoints to shots adds an interesting sense of voyeurism. On top of this, it permits the viewer information unseen by the participants, as we observe reactions from characters behind or facing away from the camera. It is a clever conceit, adding meaning and, at times, comedy.
Ultimately, 'Un Air de Famille' is a very enjoyable, sweet and at times funny tale of compromised characters and everyday life. Its denouement, although hopeful for the characters of Betty and Henri, offers little hope for other characters, such as Phillippe and Yolande, but perhaps this is the point; it is observation and understanding that the film offers us, it is perhaps too modest to suggest a solution.