Theatre Upstages Film in Francophone Production

(This review appeared in The EastAfrican July 4-10, 2011 under the title Theatre Upstages Film in New Show of Family Resemblances)

Left to Right: Lacroix, Beauchemin, Jeanson, Flohimont in Un Air de Famille

The Nairobi Francophone Amateur Theatre Troupe (Troupe de théâtre francophone amateur de Nairobi) presented Un Air de Famille directed by Daniel Lienard at the Alliance Française auditorium, which I watched on 15th June 2011.

The play presents the tensions and pretensions of a modern middle-class French family who are gathered in a café that is ran by one brother, to celebrate the birthday of the other brother’s wife.

Philippe (Fabrice Lacroix), the narcissistic, up and coming executive is the more successful of the two brothers and the obvious favourite of their mother (Chantal Jeanson). He is concerned only about his recent brief appearance on television. His prim and proper wife Yolande (Gwenaëlle Beauchemin), whose birthday they are celebrating, is endowed with much beauty but little brainpower, and this creates the comic premise in most of the play.

Henri (Bernard Biget) cuts a pitiful figure because apart from having to endure his mother’s criticism, his wife wants to leave him and he finds solace only in his paralysed dog (represented by a blanket in a basket). Their sister Betty (Sandrine Flohimont) has to hide her affair with the barman Denis (Daniel Lienard) as their class-conscious mother would not approve of it.

The playwrights, Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Baccri, adapted the play into a film of the same title (whose English translation is titled Family Resemblances) in 1996, which was directed by Cédric Klapisch and won the César Award for best writing.

As I had watched the film before the play, I could not help being under the impression that the play was an adaptation of the film, nor avoid making comparisons between the two.

However, I think the comparison is forgivable as there are many parallels between the play and the film which are due to the film aesthetics preferred by European film directors.

In fact, the similarities between the film and the play and the ease of transfer from one form to the other highlight a fundamental difference between many European and Hollywood films, which lies in the treatment of the basic unit of film structure- the shot (any length of motion picture film that runs without any interruption).

The Hollywood style depends mainly on montage, which is the editing and sequencing of shots to create the narrative of the film. In this method, which is quite economical as actors do not necessarily have to be present at the same time and the entire set does not necessarily have to be built at once, the various shots are taken from different angles and in different locations. After the filming is done, the shots are cut and sequenced to create dialogues, suspense, temporal structure and so on.

Mise-en-scene directors on the other hand are those directors who focus more on the shot itself than on the cut. The mise-en-scene director explores creative ways to define cinematic space and to create the narrative using lighting, the movement of the characters as well as the movement of the camera, preferring long shots and panoramic shots to medium shots and close ups.

Jeanson and Flohimont in Un Air de Famille

In the scene where Yolande and Denis dance, for example, in the film, the director has used mainly long shots and a panoramic shot that sweeps across the room where they are dancing, allowing for all members of the cast to be visible within that shot, making the scene not very dissimilar to the stage production.

While the montage method speeds up the viewing process, which is suitable for Hollywood action movies for example, due to the rapid sequencing of shots, the mise-en-scene method slows down the viewing process, as the action rolls out in one frame, very much like how action would be viewed on stage.

It is therefore easy to see why it is difficult to not make comparisons between the film and the play.

Much as the film also won the César for best supporting actor awarded to Jean-Pierre Darroussin who played the role of Denis and best supporting actress awarded Catherine Frot for the role of Yolande, Lienard and Beauchemin who played these roles respectively at Alliance Française were equally good and in fact, I felt that the entire cast brought a freshness to each of their characters making it, (notwithstanding my admitted bias to theatre) far more pleasurable than the film.

© Anne Manyara 2011

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