A play rewritten for the screen, Un Air de Famille (Family Resemblances) is an insightful but long-winded look at a dysfunctional family's Friday night dinner. Held together by several inspired performances from its ensemble cast, and director Cedric Klapisch's (When the Cat's Away) excellent use of a two-room set, the film is nevertheless nearly two hours of unrelenting talk. Every thought and emotion is expressed in dialogue-it's more theatre than cinema. The exposition is confusing-it doesn't define the characters' relationships clearly-and the narrative builds too slowly. When events finally lead to the pent-up emotions and conflicts of the three siblings, Henri (Jean-Pierre Bacri), Philippe (Wladimir Yordanoff) and Betty (Agnes Jaoui), and their mother (Claire Maurier), the film gains more dimension, some psychological depth and humor, but even that waxes and wanes with the episodic pace of the screenplay.

Un Air de Famille opens with a rather clumsy scene between Denis (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Betty, who are on-again, off-again lovers. Denis is an employee in Henri's caf, where the family gathers each Friday night. This Friday night, however, certain events change the fragile balance of familial relationships: Earlier in the evening, successful businessman and favored-son Philippe made a TV appearance on behalf of his company; Betty, who owes her job to Philippe, had a falling out with her boss; and Henri's wife decided not to come home, as she needs time to think about their marriage. It's also the birthday of Yolande (Catherine Frot), Philippe's wife, and Mother gives her a dog, the same dog she and Henri own. Henri's dog is paralyzed, just as Mother's was; it seems the breed becomes paralyzed in old age. Yolande thinks the dog is depressing, and hurts everyone's feelings by saying so. The dog serves as a metaphor for the family's acceptance of their own paralyzing dysfunctions. Yolande, a bit empty-headed but emotionally aware, is the only one who sees the tragedy of it all, and is unwilling to become a party to those dysfunctions. Frot, perhaps best known here for her cinematic debut in Mon oncle d 'Amerique (Alan Resnais), and more recently for her role in Claire Denis' J'ai pas sommeil (1993), illustrates the nuances which define great film acting in her role as Yolande. When she opens her birthday card from Mother, and finds the photo of the dog, and when she opens her husband's gift and finds a necklace that she mistakes for a dog collar, everything Yolande feels is communicated through her eyes and her facial expressions. The same is true of Maurier, a familiar face in French cinema from the time of the New Wave. (Remember her in The Four Hundred Blows?)

Both actor-writers, Jaoui and Bacri give fine performances as, respectively, the wise-cracking younger sister and the insensitive but wounded husband. In Bacri's performance, you perceive the complicated link between being denied a mother's love and the resulting inability to give that kind of love to another woman. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy wrote that happy families 'are all alike,' but that 'every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' This screenplay, despite its flaws, is nevertheless a brilliant illustration of Tolstoy's sentiment. In Un Air de Famille, one discovers the devastating effect Mother's love and attention, or the lack of it, had on each of her children. It also intelligently depicts the harmful choices made by the adult siblings as a result of their unconscious attachment to the family's dysfunctional patterns. For instance, Philippe becomes obsessed with his family's criticism of his television appearance; being the favored child, he's still a target for the other siblings, and he's also more annoyed by his mother's criticism-he wore the the wrong tie-than seems appropriate or normal. Betty, always the younger sister, realizes late in the film her abnormal dependence on her older brother Philippe, something she took for granted because of their childhood relationship. Mother has a breakthrough, too, as a result of Betty's criticism of her-she never loved Henri as much as Philippe. While some of the characters' psychological catharses seem just a little too facile, they're handled well in the script, and in each case the performance is what really makes them believable.

Good acting and accomplished direction can often overcome a flawed screenplay-even one that's too lengthy and fashioned more like a play than a screenplay. Un Air de Famille is a fine example of this; Klapisch's talent with actors is unmistakable, as is his feeling for how to make a dialogue-heavy script appear cinematic.

--Maria Garcia