Le Skylab: Film Review

Genial 1970s-set French ensemble comedy takes a prolonged, uneven meander down memory lane.

Julie Delpy writes, directs and stars in a French comedy-drama about a family gathering in Brittany.

SAN SEBASTIAN — It may be named after an 850-ton space station that famously spiralled out of control and hurtled back to Earth, but Le Skylab is a lightweight contraption that represents a confidently handled and shrewdly commercial fourth feature from writer-director-star Julie Delpy. Oscar-nominated for co-writing Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (2004), sometime singer-songwriter Delpy raids her own memories for this affectionately humorous evocation of an extended French family's boozy get-together in mid-summer 1979 as seen through the eyes of a precociously smart 11-year-old girl.

The air of wistful nostalgia, plus the presence of several popular French performers in the sprawling cast, will likely translate into healthy domestic box office for this October 5th release. The crowd pleaser took the Special Jury Prize at San Sebastian. Foreign theatrical prospects are also quite promising given the international success of multi-hyphenate Delpy's last two outings, 2007's comic romance 2 Days In Paris (whose sequel 2 Days In New York is already in the can) and 2009's rather more bloodthirsty and ambitious period-picture The Countess.

One overseas market which may prove particularly receptive is Australia, across whose sparsely-populated western fringes some remains of experimental American satellite Skylab eventually made landfall after a period of global media interest and some measure of panicked hysteria. As anyone who was at least of school age in 1979 may remember, NASA couldn't predict where its productive but ultimately wayward creation would come down.

Le Skylab's youthful heroine Albertine (Lou Avarez) is convinced that the orbiting laboratory is going to crash down on her family, who have traveled from Paris to the Brittany home of Grandma (Bernadette Lafont), to mark the matriarch's 67th birthday. A menagerie of parents and children convene to drink, eat, squabble and dodge the drenching showers that appear and disappear with comic suddenness. Later in the evening, the younger members of the party attend a youth disco nearby, where Albertine experiences the delights and pains of first love. This is one crucial element in her transition from schoolgirl to teenager in a picture, which takes a very French and frank attitude to pre-teens' emotional and sexual education. Indeed, sexual matters pop up frequently in the adults' conversations, whether or not their offspring are present including references to sperm, the Pill and "sodomy."

The traumas of Albertine's situation are offset by the breezy nonchalance and casual Bohemianism of her parents - Anna (Delpy) and Jean (Eric Elmosnino), street-theater performers whose leftist political stance brings them into friction with more reactionary elements in their family, most notable volatile ex-soldier Uncle Roger (Denis Ménochet). 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.

Delpy is on safer ground with the kids' experimentations and adventures in a period long before the Internet, cell phones and video games. Outdoor fun was still the norm, eliciting nice juvenile performances that recall her own precocity as a young teen actress. Crucially, Avarez is delightful as a very Woody Allen type of jeune fille— a death-obsessed, lovelorn, bespectacled bookworm. Her disco visit represents the pinnacle of the picture's unobtrusive but hilariously well-observed catalogue of period details, with careful attention paid to the wild hairstyles, clothes and music at the dowdy dawn of punk. Lubomir Bakchev's digital cinematography serves its purpose competently enough, though 35mm filming or projection would have likely yielded richer results in terms of atmospheric evocations of this fairly recent past as was the case in Sylvie Verheyde's wonderful variation on not-dissimilar themes in Stella (2008).

Delpy's cleverest ploy involves presenting the narrative as a visualization of the adult Albertine's memories as she travels with her own husband and children several decades later. These book-ending sequences are somewhat clunky in their execution, but their memory-lane angle serves to excuse whatever exaggerations and indulgences Delpy may commit in-between — and this does end up seeming like one very longand implausibly eventful 24 hours. As the daydreaming, fortysomething Albertine, two-time César winner Karin Viard's screen time is so limited that it's really no more than an extended cameo. Elmosnino, fresh from his own César win as Gainsbourg, has rather more to do as Albertine's live-wire papa, while the still radiant Delpy provides herself with enough likeably droll moments to provoke regret that she seldom finds time to appear in other folks' movies.

Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival
Production companies: The Film, Films France 2, Cinema Tempete, Sous Un Crane
Cast: Lou Avarez, Julie Delpy, Eric Elmosnino, Denis Ménochet
Director/screenwriter: Julie Delpy
Producer: Michael Gentile
Director of photography: Lubomir Bakchev
Production designer: Yves Fournier
Costume designer: Pierre-Yves Gayraud
Music: Matthieu Sibony
Editor: Isabelle Devinck
Sales: Films Distribution, Paris
No rating, 114 minutes