Director Cedric Klapisch's Un Air de Famille is a film adaptation of a very old-fashioned and familiar type of play, the one in which a group of people, usually old friends or relatives -- in this case the latter -- gather together for some occasion during which longtime grievances burble to the surface and fresh recriminations slice the air. Each character is allotted, in turn, his or her scene of revelation, the chance to display their true colors. Though Famille is ostensibly simply a drama, it belongs to a genre which has as many conventions as science-fiction or the western.
The occasion here is the weekly gathering of a mildly dysfunctional family -- the aging mother, not so much overbearing toward her progeny as aggressively neglectful; the successful but insecure son, Philippe; the less successful and somewhat loutish son, Henri, who owns the café where they gather; the rebellious but no longer young, unmarried daughter, Betty, whose non-conformity is signified by her leather jacket -- this is a very bourgeois crew; and uptight Philippe's egregiously repressed Kewpie-doll wife, Yolande. Hovering on the family's fringe is Denis, an employee of Henri's who's either ending or beginning an affair with Betty, an ambiguity which becomes a significant plot point.
The original play and film adaptation were written by Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, who take the roles of Betty and Henri. The other actors are also intimate with the material, having acted it on stage for months before filming, and it shows. No one is less than convincing and Catherine Frot, as Yolande, the worm who turns -- but ever so slightly -- is wonderfully subtle.
Klapisch, remembered for last year's witty and very cinematic When the Cat's Away, only opens up the play during a few non-gratuitous exterior shots and brief, dreamy flashbacks. For the most part, we're stuck in the café with the bickering clan filmed, rather perversely, in Cinemascope. Spatial extravagance can't stave off the claustrophobia inherent in the material. But if Klapisch and his actors aren't quite able to make this creaky material seem fresh, their collective expertise does make it a pleasurable trifle.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].