There exists a particular sub-genre of films – many of them based on plays – that involves a reunion of family and/or friends in which secrets and hitherto unspoken and mostly unpleasant feelings come out in the open. Among the most notable are Thomas Vinterberg’s disturbing masterwork “The Celebration”, Ingmar Bergman’s even greater film “Through A Glass Darkly”, John Wells’ recent adaptation of Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” – unseen by me as I type these lines – and Robert Altman’s little-seen gem “Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”. In the latter film, a circle of James Dean female fans gathered in a bar for their annual celebration of the legendary actor who filmed a few scenes of “Giant” near them and supposedly impregnated one of them with his illegitimate son.
I evoke this film because Cédric Klapisch’s 1996 dramedy “Un Air De Famille” – “Family Resemblances” in English – is at many times reminiscent of it, not only in its bar setting, family reunion plot and unity of time, but also because Klapisch similarly displays a careful observation of human behaviour that successfully overcomes occasionally facile characterization, a talent that manifests itself in his framing and filming of characters as well as his actors’ performances.
This is exemplified in one of the film’s strongest moments as well as its dramatic game-setter: Upstart Philippe Ménard – who has just been interviewed on the regional TV news channel to promote his company –, his frosty mother (Claire Maurier) and his meek, submissive wife Yolande (Catherine Frot) have joined his rebellious sister Betty (Agnès Jaoui) at the bar run by his sullen brother Henri (Jean-Pierre Bacri), ostensibly to celebrate Yolande’s birthday. They are all waiting for Henri’s wife Arlette to join them. She is late. An increasingly agitated Henri has sent his friendly bartender Denis (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) up to get her. He returns to announce that she isn’t there. The film reacts to this new development in an almost Bergmanian way; Klapisch’s camera examines his characters’ reactions in a series of close and medium shots as their surroundings communicate their discomfort with the paradoxical harmony of their paralyzed dog’s quick breaths and a passing train’s loud rumble. Yolande’s timid face turns towards the grillage of a neon light in which a fly has trapped itself. The others shift in their seats, avoiding each other’s gazes. The pot is not quite boiling over, but it cannot contain its contents much longer.
The character’s slowly surfacing feelings are consistently treated with the same compassionate acuteness, brought on by performances that, while sometimes threatening to veer into caricature – Catherine Frot’s at-times overdone doe-eyed girlishness and Jean-Pierre Bacri’s intermittently forced grouching come to mind – never stray too far. The scene in which Yolande asks Denis for another drink before talking pitiably about their paralyzed dog is another strong point. Frot’s eyes convey a call for help that her voice only hints at. Klapisch films their faces in mid-to-long focals, sometimes changing the focus back-and-forth from one face to the other, as if trying to uncover the emotional masks his characters wear.
The use of mirrors to reflect characters in moments of transition is reminiscent of “Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”’s similar use of the bar mirror but less beautiful. The other close-up shots of character’s faces reflected in glasses lack subtlety, distract rather than enhance. But the most important thing it shares with Robert Altman’s films is its screenplay’s general refusal to take the easy road and satisfy the audience’s expectations. The initially idyllic-looking transitory slow-motion flashback of the three children waking their parents up and jumping on the bed with them to the tune of Dalida’s Come Prima – turns, by the third transition, into an ugly censored scene of their angry father verbally and physically abusing them. A perhaps simplistic and unnecessary explanation of their current state, but nevertheless indicative of the script’s well-managed backflips. By the end of the film, most of the characters still have their problems and the only thing we know for sure is that they aren’t pretending they’re not there anymore.
Exceptions, however, are made. They undermine the ending’s power and are to blame on the screenplay’s major weakness: Denis the bartender. Throughout the film, his status as a non-family member makes him an audience surrogate. The knowledge that Betty, with whom he had a non-serious fling, has feelings for him that he was not aware of until now but that she forcefully denies, further encourages the audience’s sympathy. This clear positioning of the screenplay in favour of him makes him seem less human than the rest of the characters; he’s treated as a role rather than a full and complete person. The screenplay designates him as the “good guy”, and as such he gets the happiest ending – the beginning of a serious relationship with Betty. Betraying the unexpected failure of his earlier advice to Henri to go and talk to his estranged wife, the film ends with Henri receiving a phone call from her and a subsequent second chance for their marriage. All thanks to the designated “hero”.
But in spite of these concessions to sentiment, “Un Air De Famille” remains a very solid character study. Klapisch’s dynamic camerawork emancipates it from its theatrical roots and nature, and with the help of his skill with actors, enhances its acute perception of humanity beneath two-dimensional appearances.