Here’s a French comedy worth hunting down

Here’s a French comedy worth hunting down

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Thanksgiving upon us, we've opted to single out a couple of favorite movies about family get-togethers.

Un Air De Famille (1996)

One of the hidden gems of ’90s French cinema, Un Air De Famille (an untranslatable title—the clumsy English equivalent would be A Certain Family Resemblance) began its life as a hit stage play. Unlike most such adaptations, however, this one didn’t see its original cast replaced by more marketable actors—the entire company appears in the film version, bringing along the expert timing, precise characterizations, and credible rapport they’d honed over many months. The then-husband-and-wife writing team of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri play siblings, Betty and Henri, who have gathered at the family-owned bar to celebrate the birthday of their sister-in-law, Yolande (Catherine Frot). Also present are their other sibling, Philippe (Vladimir Yordanoff); their crotchety mother (Claire Maurier); and the bartender, Denis (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who’s just been dumped by Betty, though nobody else in the family even knows that they were dating. What’s more, Henri receives a phone call earlier in the festivities from his wife, who announces that she’s leaving him. PARTY!

Though Jaoui has gone on to be a notable filmmaker in her own right (see: The Taste Of Others, Look At Me), Un Air De Famille was directed by Cédric Klapisch (L’Auberge Espagnole, Russian Dolls), who does a magnificent job of keeping the film from feeling stagebound despite its single location. But the real star is Jaoui and Bacri’s screenplay, which establishes a few nuggets of insecurity and resentment early on and then gradually escalates them into full-blown comic crises, in the tradition of something like Fawlty Towers. Philippe has been interviewed on TV, and Henri struggles to compliment him on his performance without revealing that he forgot to watch it, despite repeated reminders. Yolande is horrified when one of her birthday gifts is a dog that’s the same breed as Henri’s, which lies paralyzed in a corner. Both Henri, over many phone calls, and Denis, furtively in person, struggle to win back their paramours. The result is hardly groundbreaking, but its deft amalgam of hilarity and genuine pathos makes it an unusually intelligent crowd pleaser. What’s more, it’s as adroitly crafted as any clockwork comedy of the past 20 years; in this era of pervasive sloppiness (hi, Judd Apatow), that’s something to be treasured.

Availability: The Region 1 DVD appears to be out of print, but used copies can be found relatively cheaply, and Vudu has the film for digital rental or sale.

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