For those who recall family gatherings when some members were funny, the majority were tolerable and the end never came soon enough, there’s “Le Skylab” to bring it all back. Julie Delpy’s fourth turn as helmer is a nostalgia ride back to 1979 in the guise of a large family get-together on the eve of the projected crash of NASA’s Skylab. The multitude of characters inhabiting the formless script provides moments of amusement, but, like most cousins, they overstay their welcome. Local play could burn brightly at the start, with possible brief, bicoastal arthouse expansion.
An unnecessary present-day framing device offers little more than a cameo to Karin Viard as Albertine, who wistfully recalls that summer of ’79 when she was 10 (confidently played by Lou Alvarez) and beginning to get a handle on the world. The extended family is getting together in Brittany for a weekend birthday bash for grandma Amandine (Bernadette Lafont), so Albertine, her lefty parents Jean (Eric Elmosnino) and Anna (Delpy), and maternal granny Lucienne (Emmanuelle Riva) drive in from Paris.
Already there are Jean’s five siblings with their spouses and kids, plus older uncle Hubert (Albert Delpy). In the nearly two hours of screentime that ensue, family members gossip, barbecue, make a beach excursion, argue and wonder if the Skylab will fall on their heads. Actually, only Albertine expresses concern, and the space station’s imminent break-up is such a casually incidental part of the plot that it becomes apparent the film is using it merely to provoke a mild nostalgic nudge.
Indeed, nostalgia appears to be the main raison d’etre here, and the art department certainly has fun capturing the late ’70s in all their unflattering glory, while helmer Delpy has a ball dredging up the sights and sounds of her childhood. The enjoyment, palpable among the actors as well, is tangible, and goes some way toward holding the sprawling script together, but not quite far enough.
The sheer number of characters can be overwhelming, and it takes some time to figure out who belongs to whom. Especially awkward is the way the film inserts political arguments between left and right, with Jean’s brothers-in-law Roger (Denis Menochet) and Fredo (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h) espousing neo-fascist rhetoric in a dinner scene that plays as if the family were new to political infighting. An odd scene with Roger sleepwalking into another bedroom is meant to illustrate the extent of his trauma as an Algerian war vet, but it’s bizarrely out of place.
Given her day job as leading lady, it’s no surprise Delpy seems most confident handling her performers, and she’s on firmer ground here with light social comedy than she was in the costume drama “The Countess.” Thanks to the overall chipper tone and a healthy dose of infectious good-naturedness, some thesps stand out in the crowd, notably Valerie Bonneton and Noemie Lvovsky as two of Jean’s sisters; young Leo Michel-Freundlich as mischievous cousin Robert; and Riva, who turns an underwritten part into a lesson in the power of personality.
Digital projection makes the bright, artificial lighting look even more fake, though it’s in keeping with the sunny view in which the helmer bathes the past. Musical selections enhance the trip down memory lane.