Forty-year-old Mélina (Karin Viard) is the host of a popular radio show and the most well-known voice in France. Yet no-one know her face and Mélina prefers to keep it that way, living like a hermit in a chic part of town. Although an expert at giving emotional advice on her show, Mélina is after a connection of her own, with the mother she’s never known. A search reveals Mélina’s mother (Nadia Barentin) lives with a large family on the outskirts of the city and Mélina decides to approach her, incognito.
FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: Watching this rather good-natured and good-looking drama from writer-director Pierre Pinaud I was reminded of an ancient maxim about how even the best of us like to 'hide behind a job’.
a well-ordered confusion of hidden identities, motives and monomaniacal characters
That is to say, a job, any job, is never only work for money; it can be a place to run to, or a seat of power, a life force, a mask, and at best, a platform to exercise talent and skill.
For Clare Martin, played by Karin Viard from Polisse, her job is all those things; she even gets to pretend to be 'someone else’, a sophisticated cosmopolitan called 'Melina’. But most especially, Clare’s work is a chance for her to connect with strangers.
These people come to her with their problems. Clare as Melina has advice. Her answers soothe their worries over those nagging life choices that never fade with age or time like family, love and identity. Everyone is looking for a happy ending. Melina provides that fantasy.
Clare isn’t a social worker or a shrink. She is a late night talk radio jock who hosts a program called 'Frank Talk With You’. When on mic, she is a careful listener, always gracious, dignified and never cynical. On close scrutiny, Melina’s patter is merely conventional wisdom and good sense; she tells an adolescent caller that it’s best to ignore peer pressure in matters of sex. She advises a libidinous 60-year-old woman with a fear of emotional involvement to 'emancipate her feelings" while extolling the virtues of, um, 'screwing all day".
In the story, Melina is a major celebrity in France. This is the most dangerous kind of filmmaker’s conceit. The real-life media models for Melina’s 'act’ have a tendency to hold hostage to imagination. That can make it hard to buy into a fiction.
But Pinaud and Viard sell Melina’s fame and cult of personality brilliantly. Melina’s on-air responses maybe neat and facile––as can be, with all due respect, the 'real thing’––but that doesn’t matter. It’s the 'voice’ that the punters are responding to (and that seems to be very true to life to me). On air, Melina/Clare has a sound like honey and steel; solid and soothing. It seduces with the promise of hope.
The plot of the film hinges on an irony. Melina is a slick act, a total performance. Clare even 'glams up’ for her nightly radio gig; in 'life’, the rather glamorous Viard becomes a dowdy frump, in shapeless overcoat and bad spectacles.
Off-air Clare, who’s about 40, is a mess. A contract ensures her anonymity; Clare’s talk show crew, seemingly by both inclination and professional observance, give her a wide berth.
Reclusive, diffident and unsure and untrusting of her own emotional responses, Clare lives well and alone, her only steady pal, apparently, a 'pocket dog’ she dotes on. In moments of high anxiety she regresses into an infantile state. When things get real bad Clare retreats into what looks like a rather roomy closet and listens to an old transistor radio.
Pinaud’s script is about unraveling the mystery behind Clare’s duel persona. Clare, abandoned and given up for adoption as a child, has spent a lot of time and money tracking down her birth mother, Joelle (Nadia Barentin).
Bouncy and full of brassy humour, Joelle is working class and tough. Slowly, carefully, Clare insinuates her way into her mother’s life––while never revealing her true identity. This leads to all sorts of complications, which Pinaud has great fun pursuing, especially in a subplot where Joelle’s step grandson Lucas (Nicolas Duvauchelle) mistakes Clare’s friendship for a romantic overture.
Pinaud favours careful, telling, still frames over a moving camera; visual analogs for Clare’s alienation and voyeurism abound. From Clare’s Parisian apartment to the radio studio, cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines and Pinaud 'trap’ Clare in box-like compositions.
Underneath the farce structure––On Air is a well-ordered confusion of hidden identities, motives and monomaniacal characters––Pinaud builds a discrete layer of disquiet over the zeitgiest’s pop obsession for media 'therapists’ and their happy chat about our need for 'closure’ and 'healing’––cure-all buzz words that don’t allow for disappointment and responsibility.
The action allows us a glimpse into the morbid curiosity that threatens to entirely engulf Clare’s psyche where objects, places and songs become fuel to an insatiable and suffocating nostalgia. I particularly liked the way Pinaud takes "ªRenée Martel"ª’s insanely cheerful 'Cowgirl Dorée’ from 1975, a Québécois version of Glenn Campbell’s 'Rhinestone Cowboy’, and filters it through Clare’s bleak need, making it a thing of misery.
Pinaud turns the film’s tedious movie-of-the-week plot on its head; connecting with the past, he suggests, doesn’t always come with a happy ending. Instead, Pinaud settles for a moral that sounds neat but feels true: Clare’s past has made her. What she mistook as loss was in fact a gift. In a beautiful irony, she realises that perhaps she’s not hiding behind a job afterall. That insight is what gives On Air a poignancy that is genuinely moving and unshakable and Viard has got to take a lot of credit for making an impossible character––in both senses of the word-play––very real.