UN AIR DE FAMILLE (Family Resemblances) is my fourth film. I realize in retrospect that one of the topics that interests me the most is freedom. I have always wanted to make my kind of film, my way. UN AIR DE FAMILLE is yet another attempt to be unclassifiable, not to be locked in to any particular genre or style.
Paradoxically, UN AIR DE FAMILLE might appear to be the kind of film I would feel the least freedom in making. In fact, one of the things that surprised me the most with this project was to see that the constraints imposed on me facilitated creativity and were very liberating.
Working from a preexisting text was really a new experience for me. I was immediately impressed by the quality of the writing in UN AIR DE FAMILLE. In my opinion, it's not just a successful comedy, but one of the greatest plays in contemporary theatre. Working with a text of this quality allowed me to concentrate on the cinematic side of the project. Having an imposed framework proved liberating for me.
Like a musician holding a brilliant score in his hands, I knew there was not one single approach to interpreting it, but millions... My enthusiasm was born out of having received this marvelous script as a gift. Rather than getting bogged down with the age-old problem of "filmed theatre," I told myself, while not even dreaming about making a film as good as "The Shop Around the Corner" by Lubitsch; "Unfinished Piece for Mechanical Piano" by Mikhalkov; "Le Bal" by Ettore Scola or "Othello" by Orson Welles, that these were all truly cinematic films that first were plays. And "Contempt" by Godard and "Casanova" by Fellini, while literary adaptations, are still very personal works.
As I worked on the film, I discovered that using a text that is not your own forces you to think more about yourself.
It all began the day I received an invitation to see the play. I didn't know Agnes Jaoui or Jean-Pierre Bacri. I met them after the performance, in the company of Jean-Pierre Darroussin, whom I'd worked with on "Riens du tout," and who was go-between for our encounter. I had been invited, they explained, to ask if I'd be interested in making a film from their play.
I liked the play very much. Three days later, I went to the authors' house to discuss the project. We decided on a production company, several producers had made them offers, and a week later, we began to write the screenplay.
We got along very well and, all in all, our collaboration went quite smoothly. We agreed on what had to be added or changed as far as the play was concerned. I especially agreed that all of the roles needed to be further dramatized. The film needed to be graver and crueler. The hardest thing to manage was to sustain the general tone of the comedy while introducing more emotion. Just as in Italian comedies, the light side had to be preserved as the tone grew increasingly serious. The further we progressed, the more I realized that my directing of the film should be focused on this paradox. The entire film is constructed on the theme of opposition Æ sadness and happiness, weakness and strength, change and stasis, light and dark, day and night, cold and heat, men and women...
Since most of the action takes place in the same place, I realized that lighting would be an important element in the film. Changes in lighting allow action to evolve and the decor to change; it can create an oppressive feeling of claustrophobia, or to the contrary, of being able to breathe.
Contrary to the rules of classic comedy, where very flat lighting is used for the sake of visibility and to create a cheery atmosphere; I chose to restrict visibility. I knew that to maintain interest in the same characters in the same setting for an hour and fifty minutes, an element of mystery had to be created. Often we can't see the characters or can't see them well, in order to highlight certain important moments. This gives the film a chance to be more than a comedy. It's a black comedy and at times the laughter feels a little strained.
The set was designed for the maximum use of lighting Æ lengthwise, along the line of the setting sun. There is always light on one side and shadow on the other. When the action takes place near the door, the characters are in shadow; when the action takes place at the far end of the cafe, the characters are well-lit. Through the evening and into the night, this opposition is transformed into a cold side and a warm side, and two clans are formed. The characters that are well-lit and those that aren't, who become those who are warm and those who are cold...
The film could be seen merely in terms of these continual changes; things are constantly in flux. The characters are in constant motion, leaving the shadows, moving into the light...
The whole story might almost be presented as a stylistic exercise in fluidity. It is quite rare to indicate continuous time in a film. The film's action takes place almost in real time. It's a four-hour story told in an hour and fifty minutes. Along with my director of photography Benoit Delhomme, I was careful to plot out the way night would fall during the film, beginning with broad daylight and progressing to twilight, dusk, then nightfall. We were sure that the lighting would give both a sense of continuity and the sense of change that is one of the play's main themes. What remains eternal and what can change within a family...? What has and will continue to exist and what can help renew the bonds between a mother and her children, or between brothers and sisters?
The film was meticulously mapped out in advance, thanks to the story-board I did in collaboration with Luc Desports (who has drawn all of my story boards, beginning with my short, "Ce qui me meut" ["What Moves Me"]) while the sets were being built. I had as a goal to enhance the meaning of the play, but I also wanted to distance the film from the stage production. The preparation for this film was rather complicated because of all of the highly technical use of lighting, camera movements, sets, sound and editing. I was constantly searching for a way of translating theatrical concepts into cinematic techniques. It was not a mere question of modifying an actor's rhythm or speech patterns. I had to systematically change all of the actors' exits to the wings into exits from the camera's field of vision, which had the same purpose. Therefore, everything had to be calibrated--sets, sound, camera angles--in terms of what they added to an actor's performance .
In order to make the film more cinematic, I decided to use Cinemascope, which allowed me several things. First of all, Cinemascope is used for wide, open spaces, such as in westerns, to show landscapes and horizons to their best advantage. Filming indoors with Cinemascope was almost comical in the sense that it transformed the film into a kind of humanistic, intimate French version of a western. Actually, Cinemascope brought the set to life. When we did a close-up, there was more of the set than the face. It was a way of creating room to breathe, to avoid being suffocated by a purely psychological story line. Another advantage was being able to film all six characters at once, which was often quite useful. And, finally, the lack of depth of focus allowed me to play around a little, through the systematic use of different focal points.
The sets were designed by Francois Emmanuelli to reinforce the feeling of depth ,again with the idea of preventing a sense of claustrophobia. Like the paintings by Dutch masters, there is always a window in the rear, or an opening, a serving window to pass dishes to and from the kitchen, a door leading elsewhere. Camera movements within this defined space added a notion of fluidity and continual change, both to the space itself and of the action that takes place there.
Shooting in a studio allowed me to coordinate every element of the production in advance, from the size and position of the serving window, to the shape of the phone booth and the height of the counter, etc. The decor was meant to look as realistic as possible. I didn't want it to look like a "set." Francois Emmanuelli used design elements from nearly a dozen cafes, recreating the counter from one, the paint-chipped wall from another, and the filthy kitchen from yet another, and the "Pere Tranquille" (the tranquil father) became a "real" fake cafe!
We strived to make the sound in the film as realistic as possible. Voices are given priority; the world outside the cafe is introduced in by means of sound. Even the music composed by Philippe Eidel goes in that direction. It accentuates the action while hinting at the atmosphere of the miserable neighborhood outside. I knew I had to give the film a certain stylization and, strangely enough, I came to this realization shortly after seeing "Sanjuro" by Kurosawa. Although the decor, lighting, sound and acting needed to be realistic, the shots had to be outrageously composed and constructed. At times they contribute a certain equilibrium, but when the action gets a bit rocky, the shots accentuate this imbalance...
I saw the play five more times before we began shooting. It helped me get ideas for my direction. After that, we rehearsed the actors using a video camera. In the beginning, it was hard for the actors to take advantage of all three dimensions. They no longer had to speak their lines or turn in a single direction, toward the audience... As the shooting progressed, I could see how well they had learned their roles and their lines. They had performed the play every night for nine months before we began the film. I realized that it was important to let them use what they'd learned but that it was necessary for them to "break out" of their theatrical patterns. Shortly after we began shooting, I realized that the cadence of cinema and that of the stage were different. We would have to change the rhythm of the phrases and of reactions, at times accelerate, but occasionally leave extra time for the image; for sound... The phrasing had to change, not only speaking softer, sometimes whispering--but also the manner of speaking the line.
Right at the start, I noticed that shooting the scenes in sequence caused them to take on a theatrical ring, so I chose to break up the shooting schedule quite a bit. Things that are usually troublesome for actors turned into advantages on this film. Actors have to deal with tremendous technical constraints at the same time as thinking about their acting, and I immediately realized that was a great way of allowing them to forget the stage. The film was rather complicated technically. Actors' movements had to be closely coordinated with camera movements and there were two sound engineers at all times (because I wanted above all to avoid high frequency noises and give priority to the clarity of the voices), which didn't simplify things.
Three months previous, I had finished making "When the Cat's Away," which used quite opposite techniques: improvisation, spontaneity, ellipses, and a fracturing of places, people and time... In "When the Cat's Away," we didn't do many takes and used lots of amateur actors; often the quality of the acting had more to do with the novelty of the experience and pure spontaneity. In UN AIR DE FAMILLE, it was quite to the contrary, the quality of the acting was due to experience and precision; the very idea of spontaneity would have seemed absurd...
The two films were practically made at the same time. As I see it, their differences brought them together. They represent two very different approaches to filmmaking. "When the Cat's Away" was my third "first film;" UN AIR DE FAMILLE is my first film as an "adult."