Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 21, 2011 6:00 am 
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Eating and talking in Brittany, summer 1979

Along with the shapeless child protection police film Polisse, current Paris cinematic offerings include the previously released Le Skylab, Julie Delpy’s third directorial outing and a nostalgic wallow in French family life in the late Seventies. The action revolves around a big gathering of multiple cousins at an unpretentious summer house in St. Malo, in Brittany, nominally on the eve of the projected 1979 Skylab crash. The local occasion is the birthday of grandma Amandine (Bernadette Lafont). By the convention of a perfunctory framing device all this is the recollection of Amandine’s granddaughter Albertine, who in the present day is played briefly by Karin Viard, and back then as a ten-year-old is played by Lou Alvarez, one of several child actors who add charm to the busy proceedings. Delpy wrote, directed, and stars. Though the tone of the film is uneven, the characters, especially the younger ones, are not uninteresting.

The main action opens with the drive from Paris with Albertine’s leftist, fuzzy-headed dad Jean (Eric Elmosnino) at the wheel, accompanied by his wife and Albertine’s mom Anna (Delpy) and Anna’s mother, Lucienne (Emmanuelle Riva).

Once they arrive, to be greeted by Jean’s five siblings and their families plus an older uncle called Hubert (Albert Delpy), just following who they are all may be a bit difficult. There is no central event. Everybody sits at the traditional big table out on the lawn eating. A big hunk of meat is barbecued. It rains off and on and they all rush indoors, then set up outside again. There is a trip to the beach, and there is a lot of talk and some arguing about politics and other topics. The older ladies reminisce about WWII and Vietnam. Only Albertine worries about whether the Skylab space station’s impending crash will endanger them all: this is really just a dating device.

Hollywood Reporter describes Albertine as " a very Woody Allen type of jeune fille— a death-obsessed, lovelorn, bespectacled bookworm. " While the kids play outdoor games, no handheld devices in sight, adults' action consists largely of conversation, and planting the leftist dad allows for the drama of conflict with more right wing siblings. As Hollywood Reporter notes, the liveliest of these is "volatile ex-soldier Uncle Roger (Denis Ménochet)." But this is where the uneven tone is most felt. The review contines, "While Inglourious Basterds scenestealer Ménochet's bullish intensity initially brings welcome tonal changes in what's otherwise often a warmly fluffy affair, his character's belligerence, tormented anguish and drink-fueled behavior end up coming across like a heavy-handed attempt to amp up elements of third-act drama." There is not the sense that Del[py, who does so well in inventing characters and bringing the summer outing to live with her excellent cast, has the conceptual or technical skill, as yet anyway, to construct a meaningful drama.

This is a nostalgia piece in which Delpy fondly remembers her childhood and has fun, with help from the art department, with the unflattering and now silly-looking styles of the period. The screenplay is intentionally a meandering one, meant to evoke the amiable disorganization of large family gatherings. Everyone seems to be having fun, characters and actors both. However, the almost total lack of urgency about the action will make this a movie that will appeal some but bore others. The acting is the greatest point of appeal. Valerie Bernneton and Noemie Lvovsky are particularly likeable as Jean’s sisters; Leo-Michel Freundlich shows great promise as Albertine’s flirtatious young cousin, and Emmanuelle Rive imbues her small part with great style and flavor.

It seems nice that after directing a somewhat arch English-language film set in France for her debut and then trying a costume piece with limited success, Delpy as deceded to work in the milieu she came from with a lot of French actors playing roles putatively related to her own family experience. But whether English-speaking viewers will want to read a lot of subtitles with so little payoff in emotional or physical action seems uncertain. Le Skylab opened in France 5 October 2011; it premiered at the San Sebastian festival in Spain September 19. Screened for this review at UGC Danton, Paris.

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