"Ah, Monsieur Rabelais," an admirer said to the 16th century French writer in a memorable New Yorker cartoon, "there is simply no word to describe your lusty, bawdy sense of humor."
Similarly, there is no one word (and it probably wouldn't be "Rabelaisian") to describe the kind of uproarious, quintessentially French verbal farce that is "Un Air de Famille." Delicate and deliciously directed by Cedric Klapisch, one of France's best young filmmakers, and acted with great sureness, this droll symphony of comic disenchantment is as perfectly balanced and executed as the timepiece of your dreams.
"Un Air de Famille" is based on a hit French play, and its six-character ensemble is made up of original cast members who played their parts on stage for nine months before filming began. Two of the actors, Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, wrote the piece and received a Cesar, the French Oscar, for best screenplay, and two more, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and the marvelous Catherine Frot, won supporting actor Cesars for their roles.
Done in real time largely at a single location, a cafe incongruously named Au Pere Tranquille (Tranquil Dad's), "Un Air de Famille" is simplicity itself in outline. It's Friday night, a time when the Menaud family--mother, two sons and their wives and an unmarried daughter--gathers for a weekly family dinner at the cafe run by son Henri (Bacri), who inherited the place from his father.
The film's title translates as "Family Resemblances," and in truth only families can drive each other as crazy as these people do. Quick to take offense, always willing to needle one another for scores that will forever remain unsettled, these whining, complaining relations have been getting on one another's nerves for time out of mind. On this particular Friday, everything will come to a wildly comic head.
All this contentiousness stems from the pugnacious family matriarch, (Claire Maurier, who played the mother in Truffaut's "Four Hundred Blows"), who's always ready with a critical word for whoever crosses her line of vision.
Usually it's underachieving son Henri who gets most of her grief, and tonight, with his wife, Arlette, absent without official leave, Henri returns the favor. He expresses outraged irritation at anything he can think of, from the willingness of female tennis professionals to wear shorts instead of skirts to the slothfulness of his bartender Denis (Darroussin). "Are you cleaning your kneecap?" he snaps when the poor man rests his rag there for a minute. "It's spotless."
Henri even lashes out at his irritable sister Betty (Jaoui), who has problems of her own. She's worried about being 30 and unmarried, she's just told off her boss and she is involved in a phlegmatic relationship with bartender Denis that no one else in the family knows about.
Smiling, self-satisfied brother Philippe (Wladimir Yordanoff), a top executive at the computer company Betty works for, usually has things his own way, but tonight is not an ordinary night. Philippe represented his firm on local TV earlier in the day, and he's worried about how he came off, not to mention what Betty's fight with her boss will do to his career. And then there is Yolanda, familiarly known as Yoyo (Frot).
Yoyo is Philippe's slightly dim wife whose 35th birthday is to be celebrated on this most uncelebratory night. Simple but sweet and genuine, prone to getting tipsy and putting her hand to her lips when she laughs, Yoyo is a singular comic creation, as sympathetic as she is naive, and Frot's performance makes her irresistible.
All of this highly verbal madness is delivered with great style and in a way that seems, as the entire film does, thoroughly French. Here is a family whose members lavish more care on dogs than they do on people, punctuate their dizzying tirades with vivid gestures and grimaces, are quick to take offense and obstinately passionate about each and every one of their opinions. A collection of riotous national stereotypes, in short, and no less amusing for that.
Though director (and co-screenwriter) Klapisch came into the project after it was a stage hit, "Un Air de Famille" benefits considerably from his touch. As he did with his early "Chacun Cherche Son Chat" (When the Cat's Away), Klapisch excels at bringing reality and empathy to unlikely comic material. We know these people as well as we know ourselves, and maybe that's why we laugh so hard at their foibles.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: adult themes.
'Un Air de Famille'
Jean-Pierre Bacri: Henri
Agnes Jaoui: Betty
Jean-Pierre Darroussin: Denis
Catherine Frot: Yolande
Claire Maurier: Mother
Wladimir Yordanoff: Philippe
A Telema, Le Studio Canal +, France 2 Cinema, Canal + and Cofimage 7 production, released by Leisure Time Features and Cinema Village Features. Director Cedric Klapisch. Executive producer Charles Gassot. Screenplay Agnes Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri & Cedric Klapisch, based on a play by Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. Editor Francine Sandberg. Costumes Corinne Jorry. Music Philippe Eidel. Production director Patrick Lancelot. Set designer Francois Emmanuelli. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
* Playing at Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; State, 770 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 792-3540; Edwards South Coast Village, 1561 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 540-0594.