The train grand vitesse is packed, everybody snug in a reserved seat except for this disruptive young mother standing in the aisle, babe in arms, asking if someone will switch so that she and her family can sit together. No one will, and her stubbly-faced husband says, “It’s only three hours.” She kisses him. Through the windows we see rolling hills, dark forests, golden fields. August.
The film is Le Skylab. Flash backward 20-some years to the summer of 1979 on a slow train, with another stubble-faced dad, Jean (Eric Elmosnino) and blond, blowsy mom, Anna (director Julie Delpy) and their bespectacled 11-year-old daughter, Albertine (Lou Alvarez). Albertine accuses the stranger sitting opposite of ogling her, leading to cries of “pervert” from her parents, followed by laughter as the man flees the compartment.
Albertine’s playful, uncensored parents are Parisian actors, intellectuals en route to a family reunion near St. Malo on the coast of northern Brittany. The occasion is the birthday of grandmother Mamie (Bernadette Lafont) a foxy Bette Midler look-alike who had offspring by three husbands.
The film takes place in 24 hours, mostly spent eating, laughing, arguing, playing and performing in the garden. After barbecuing a lamb, the men play an awkward game of soccer in their shrunken ʻ70s polo shirts and short shorts. Albertine’s busty, good-natured Aunt Monique (Noemi Lvovsky) and her impish husband who can’t stop bragging on her breasts perform a skit with a vacuum cleaner. Demented great-uncle Hubert (Albert Delpy) wanders off with a long hose, to water his roses, someone says (actually, to try and hang himself). A little boy sings a song about penises sticking up, a harbinger of the penises that will be glimpsed on a nude beach (along with a lady’s “very large bush,” as remarked by Jean), and later that night when Uncle Roger (Denis Menochet), who served in Algeria, does a bottomless commando crawl into the room of another couple.
Albertine’s parents are leftists, but the rest of the family is conservative–Mamie misses colonial life in Vietnam. Anna, anxious about being in Brittany because that is where the out-of-control satellite of the title is predicted to crash to earth that very night, drinks heavily and gets into a near-violent argument with Roger over politics. Her sisters-in-law discuss whether feminists and lesbians prefer overalls.
The television news cuts from Skylab’s trajectory to Francois Mitterand, on his way to becoming elected president of France. Following elections earlier this month, Bernard Hollande has become the second Socialist to take that office, and one can imagine Albertine’s now middle-aged parents among the thousands celebrating at the all-night Parisian street bash.
While Jean and Anna drink, quarrel and laugh, Albertine broods on death by Skylab, makes Ken and Barbie dolls copulate with the help her little boy cousin (he of the penis song), and goes to a disco with the whole gang of cousins led by gawky, louche Christian (Vincent Lacoste), earlier seen with a pack of cigarettes shoved in his red Speedo (le moule-dick). Albertine has a chaste slow dance with an angelic-looking older boy from the nudist beach.
Later that night, something happens to Albertine that might seem heavy in another director’s hands, but here? Life just moves on. We do know that she turns into the happy young mom who opens and ends the film.
Delpy is an appealing writer/director who made Two Days in Paris (2007) and now, Two Days in New York (2012). Le Skylab, a terrific blend of ensemble comedy and lite social commentary, took top honors at the San Sebastian film festival last year. If you don’t enjoy family reunions, you’ll love this film.