Published June 1, 1998
Un Air de Famille, directed by Cédric Klapisch (While the Cat’s Away) from an original play by Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, is enormous fun, and I highly recommend it if you are lucky enough to find it opening in your neighborhood. Denis (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is having affair with Betty (Miss Jaoui) while working for Betty’s brother, Henri (Mr Bacri), who runs a not very successful and ironically named pub, Au Père Tranquille. All Betty’s and Henri’s family are in a tizzy about the appearance in a TV interview of Philippe (Wladimir Yordanoff), their brother and their mother’s favorite, to talk about his company, in which he is a self conscious “Number 4” behind a particularly difficult character whom everyone hates called Mazzolini and nicknamed, inevitably, “Benito.” This person never appears, but is a brooding presence behind the action. Other significant absentees include the presumably deceased father of the three siblings, whom their mother still despises and whom Henri is said to resemble and Arlette, Henri’s wife who has just left him.
The overwhelming presence for all the others is their monster-mother (Claire Maurier), the sort of woman who prefers her dogs to her children. “Dogs never disappoint you,” she says. She shamelessly prefers Philippe to Henri but manages to manipulate both — as well as Philippe’s unhappy wife, Yolande (Catherine Frot) — while directing a constant stream of subtle criticism at her only daughter. In the midst of this all-too recognizable portrait of family life, there is inserted the occasional flashback scene of the three kids jumping in their parents’ bed to 1950s or 1960s vintage music. Everybody is happy and laughing in these vignettes until the final one in which the parents are angry and the children are all crying. Ah that idyllic childhood!
Part of the film’s brilliance is that Henri at first seems to be the dull witted boor that the rest of the family treats him as, so that we are complicit in what later comes to seem a monstrous injustice. Partly this is done with humor, as the other family members tease him, and he turns for support to his hired help, Denis, who is obviously caught in the middle. In one argument with Betty about who is the more disfavored of the two of them in relation to golden boy Philippe, he turns to Denis for adjudication. “Am I the family idiot?” asks an angry Henri.
“Yes,” says Denis.
“See!” cries Henri in triumph.
Partly too, Henri is shown as having impermissably old-fashioned ideas about women. We begin as he is desperately worried about his wife, Arlette, not turning up for the party, as the whole family is going out to a posh restaurant to celebrate Yolande’s birthday. “It will look,” Henri worries, “as if I can’t control my wife.” Few remarks could so reliably stamp him as a villain these days! Later, he gives what he sees as helpful and kindly advice to Betty, whom he sees as soon to be an old maid unless she is careful. She should act more “ladylike,” he tells her. “You can’t catch flies with vinegar.” The tart-tongued Betty’s withering sarcasm in reply (“Oh really? That’s amazing. I always thought that you could catch flies with vinegar”) goes right over his head. When Arlette calls to tell him that she is leaving him — at least for a week or two “to think things over” — we think we know and approve her justification of such a move, that he is “inconsiderate” to her. Of course such a man must be inconsiderate — the more so as he asks everybody what that means: “Am I inconsiderate?” he quizzes them, uncomprehending.
But the first complication in this otherwise clear picture comes as we see what a monster his mother is, and how she taunts him with being “just like Dad” — from whom, we gather, she has long since parted. Mainly this resemblance is owing to the fact that he does not fix the pub up. Mother’s watchword is C’est normale — a catchphrase picked up by everybody in the family and always used as a stick with which to beat somebody else. The ultimate justification for any bad behavior is that it’s normal. That’s one reason why Betty’s frustration with her family bursts out at one point when she shouts defiance to the normal: “I don’t play by the rules. I’m a criminal. Throw me in jail. Normal sucks!”
Gradually, we are made to agree. “Normal” is Philippe and mother, the characters whose unattractiveness exfoliates with every scene. Meanwhile, Henri, the butt of everyone’s ridicule earns more and more respect. After the rest of the family find out about his domestic misfortune (“These things happen to him,” says mother), they split down the middle on the question of whether he should go after Arlette to seek a reconciliation — the opinion of Betty and Denis — or whether he should remain proudly aloof as mother and Philippe think. “It’s a question of character,” explains monster-mom. “I couldn’t do it. It’s lowering yourself.” Philippe cites a French proverb: “Follow me, I flee; flee from me, I follow.” Henri’s defiance of mother and Philippe, and a new basis of understanding between him and his sister and Denis, does not work miracles, but it does allow this richly comic look into the inner life of a poisonously “dysfunctional” family to end on an optimistic note.