Le Skylab Movie Review

Featuring: Julie Delpy, Eric Elmosnino, Aure Atika, Noémie Lvovsky, Bernadette Lafont, Emmanuelle Riva, Vincent Lacoste, Albert Delpy, Valérie Bonneton, Denis Ménochet
Director: Julie Delpy
Writer: Julie Delpy
Website: mubi.com/films/skylab
Australian release date: Somerville 17–23 December, 8pm
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: slight)

It’s 1979, and the US Skylab space station is due to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate. There is worldwide conjecture on where the remnants will fall. The topic lurks in the background during a family reunion on a farm somewhere near the French coast. Over two days and a night, interactions between the family members are tracked, progressing from light-hearted banter and sing-songs to disagreements about feminism, the Vietnam War and politics. The main focus is 11-year-old Albertine (Lou Avarez), a child of leftie bohemian street theatre performer parents, Anna (Julie Delpy) and Jean (Eric Olmosnino). As the adults joke, gossip, drink, complain and debate their differences, Albertine and her young cousins manage to get away for some mischief and horseplay, interspersed with a little coming-of-age action.

We’re introduced to Albertine in the very beginning of the film as a 30s-something woman with husband and a couple of kids in tow entering a crowded train carriage, and requesting that passengers move from their premium “club” seats to allow her family to sit together. Understandably, she meets with protest, and sulkily settles for the lower-priced seats they have paid for. She sits next to one child, her husband with the other, not directly opposite but not far away. You wonder why she made such a fuss about the seating – hardly endearing to her fellow passengers or us, the audience.

One minute she’s sitting there with her kid fuming over not getting her way with the seats, the next she’s reminiscing about the summer of 79 – which lands us back in that year, with her as an 11-year-old at a family reunion. And here we stay until the end of the movie, when we are wrenched back from 79 to the train carriage, whereupon adult Albertine gets up and has another go at persuading the hapless occupants of her desired seats to move. This time, she is successful.

Perhaps there are people out there who will sympathise with this pushy woman, seeing her actions as an admirable affirmation of family priority. Not moi. I thought she was a petulant family-centric (ie: her family) pain in the arse. Further, I found myself wondering why the hell Delpy included this present-day stuff in the movie. Why flashback – clunkily – for no good dramatic reason, instead of simply setting the movie in 1979 from beginning to end? Especially when the side-effect of the opening train carriage scene is to ill-dispose the viewer to her lead character…

Fortunately, 11-year-old Albertine is far more appealing than her adult self (thanks to a fabbo performance from Lou Avarez). In fact, all the performances are good, the actors responding to a loose script that simulates self-generating real-life conversation between family members and – I imagine – allows a certain measure of spontaneity of expression. This is no doubt invigorating for actors more commonly required to act as screenwriter mouthpieces, bound to the script word for word.

As per Woody Allen, Robert Altman and other proponents of naturalistic speech in movies, there are a lot of overlapping lines, with several – sometimes numerous – characters talking at once etc. It doesn’t grate, generally. This is how it is with big family groups (too big on occasions – much of the first 20 minutes or so is taken up with extravagant Gallic three-kiss greetings and huggings as members of the extended family arrive at staggered intervals!).

But where Allen, Altman et al know exactly where their work is going and why, Delpy seems content to follow her nose down memory lane and allow the film to unfold ‘organically’. The material is obviously biographical, which can be a trap. On one hand, authenticity is inherent; on the other, the stuff of life is not always appropriately transferable to dramatic form. There’s not a lot of wit on display here, and much of the interaction seems rambling and directionless. Conversational verisimilitude is one thing; too much of a nod to realism without an overarching narrative or structural plan of any substance is another.

That said, there is enough of interest in the mix to mitigate against tedium: some nice humorous touches, a few sobering moments of character revelation, one near-tragic one featuring a loopy older family member (played by Albert Delpy, Julie’s father), and a somewhat jarring and unconvincing scene depicting the effect of war-related trauma on an ex-soldier member of the family. Some social and political content serves to identify members of the family group as left (yay) or right (boo), but beyond enabling Delpy to unsubtly declare her allegiances through her treatment of the characters, this aspect of the script doesn’t pay its way.

Of course, dorky 70s fashion gets a run, and an assortment of 70s musical numbers – mostly disco – enhances the nostalgia of the piece (if you were into disco, that is!). One of the most memorable scenes takes place on a teen disco dance floor, when Albertine close-dances with a cool, good-lookin’ blonde-mopped DJ a couple of years older whom she has a crush on. Within minutes, she moves from ecstasy to agony, as he politely thanks her for the dance, then returns to his DJ pulpit to the embrace of an older girl who snuggles up to him, claiming possession. Sweet, funny and poignant!

In the same segment, Albertine’s 16-year-old (or so) cousin hams it up as a cool dude and aspiring pants man, equally dividing his attention between puffing doomily on a cigarette and snogging two teen girls in turn, one to his left, one to his right, an arm around each. At one stage one of the girls whirls around to smooch at the command of his finger-snap. Well chuckleworthy.

Overall, a mostly entertaining, sometimes amusing and occasionally affecting 70s nostalgia flick that isn’t much more than an autobiographical excursion into a fondly remembered personal past on the part of the director. The affection that informs Delpy’s retrospective take on this clearly significant time of her life is mildly contagious, and the family dynamics are convincing. However, nostalgia and personal reminiscence only carry the piece so far, and without more substantial universally meaningful content, it all ends up feeling a little indulgent and light on.

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