Un Air de Famille
(Family Matters)

             Tolstoy opened his novel
ANNA KARENINA with the (now clichéd)
     sentence: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy        
     in its own way." As if to prove this axiom, the writing team of Jean-Pierre
     Bacri and Agnès Jaoui created the stage play
which has now been adapted in to a bittersweet comedy-drama
     by Cédric  Klapisch.

             The plot is both simple and complex. Each week, a family gathers
     on Friday to share a meal and catch up with one another. There's the
     overbearing, highly-critical mother, her two sons, one clearly the favorite,
     the other perhaps too much like his father, and her unmarried 30-year old
     daughter. This gathering is supposed to be special, Philippe, the favored
     one, appeared on television representing the high-tech company in which
     he holds a position of importance. It is also his wife's birthday — so the
     stage is set for a dual celebration.

             But, there are things that have occurred that will eventually cause
     the entire family to re-evaluate their lives. The daughter Betty also
     happens to work for the same company and it a bit of bad timing
     has chosen this day to tell off her boorish boss, jeopardizing her job in
     the process. Henri, considered the foolish one for trying to preserve
     his father's restaurant, discovers that his wife has picked that day
     to leave him. Hovering around on the fringes is Denis, who works for
     and boards with Henri. There are enough plot points here to fuel
     several films.

             Skillfully, Jaoui and Bacri abetted by Klapisch have distilled the
     inherent conflicts in a familial unit — particularly the rivalries and
     perceived hurts — and present them with ironic wit. There's truth in
     what is said — sometimes brutally — other times through humor.
     The emotional battles that erupt between parent and child, siblings,
     husband and wife, all coalesce into an enjoyable film. The theatrical
     roots of the piece are obvious, but Klapisch utilizes odd, fluid
     camerawork that helps to "open up" the material. The growing tension
     among the characters is leavened by humor, flies hitting a bug zapper,
     the presence of Henri's crippled dog. The screenwriters, moreover,
     provide every character with what Maxwell Anderson called "a moment
     of realization" which, in turn, allows each actor at least one meaty scene.

             The company of actors had performed the play for months before
     filming and they function as a believable group. Heading the family is
     Claire Maurier as the tactless mother. (Sharp-eyed cineastes may recall
     the actress as Jean-Pierre Léaud's mother in François Truffaut's
THE 400 BLOWS.) Wladimir Yordanoff is well-cast as the
     pompous Philippe while co-writer Bacri excels as the tortured Henri.
     Jaoui delivers one of the strongest portrayals as the confrontational
     Betty who finally comes to realize what her family has been doing to
     her while the actors playing the two outsiders, Jean-Pierre Darroussin        
     (as Denis) and particularly Catherine Frot (providing much humor as
     the seemingly dim-witted Yolande) also shine. Jointly, these actors
     provide a fine time and make visiting with this family well worth the trip.

                                     Rating:        B+
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.