Here is another one of those films that the French do better than anyone else. Practically the entire film takes place within a neighborhood tavern and it is just about all talk. We meet the members of a family: a domineering, rather self righteous mother, her favored yuppie son and his somewhat ditzy wife, her less favored son who has taken over running the tavern that had been his father’s, and the independent, sharp tongued unmarried daughter who is having an affair with the bartender.
It all starts a little slowly and demands a bit of patience, but somewhere about a third of the way through we reach critical mass – we know enough about these characters and their interrelationships to catch the ironies that director Cedric Klapisch is observing, the ways that members of families behave in family situations, ways they would not normally behave with outsiders. The guard is down, the need for genteel politeness seems set aside, family members say what they are thinking with less editing than they would do with others.
Klapisch’s observation rings true and it can be droll as well as painful, though the overall tone here remains lighter, rather than darker. Still, Klapisch is sufficiently perceptive about these family relationships to hit any number of jarringly truthful moments, moments that have the ring of universality. Each of the characters seems to learn from the give and take of the evening, and each of their relationships changes , if in small ways, in response to the sometimes painful things said.
Brief flashbacks to scenes when the family was younger and the kids horseplayed in bed with Mom and Dad show a simpler, perhaps more outwardly loving time in the family’s history. But even with the conflict and some of the harsh words spoken on this evening that was supposed to celebrate a birthday, it becomes clear in small ways that there is still a lot of caring amongst the members of this family, and, in the end, maybe that is the best of what families are really about.
CV cannot help but to contrast Un Air de Famille with another filmic family get-together from this past year, Celebration. Where Celebration hit you on the head with a hammer, Un Air de Famille tantalizes with subtlety, charm, and wisdom. Where Celebration utilized extremes, including child abuse and incest, to make its not so perceptive points about families, Un Air tells us far more about how family dynamics work through simple, ordinary day-to-day give and take. Where Celebration tried to cover its lack of originality with unpleasant camera and editing technique, Un Air is utterly traditional technically.
Go see it with a member of your family and you will emerge both better for it and delightfully entertained.