During summer in the late 1970s, the 80th birthday of a Grandmother brings an entire family French together to celebrate.

French family drama shows a nation divided.

In actor-turned-filmmaker Julie Delpy’s most widely seen films, 2007’s 2 Days in Paris and 2012’s 2 Days in New York, she used French culture as a kind of comic stumbling block, contrasting it with American mores as each of the countries hosted the other in turn. There was humourous friction and deft observations, but she didn’t dig down into either nation. With Skylab, made between those two films and now belatedly arriving in Australia, Delpy takes the most nostalgic of vehicles, an autobiographical depiction of an extended family gathering, and uses it to unearth a vision of 20th century France that is both telling and relevant.

Each generation thinks it will be different, but each is a continuation of the one prior.

The framing device is present-day wife and mother Albertine (Karin Viard) making the same train journey from Paris to St. Malo in Brittany that she did as an 11-year-old with her own parents in 1979. The young Albertine (Lou Alvarez) is precocious and insecure, the product of two street theatre actors, Anna (Delpy) and Jean (Eric Elmosnino), who fret about her but don’t try to hold her back from the world. Skylab is alive to many ideas, including how to raise children, although it’s hard to say whether taking an 11-year-old to the Cannes Film Festival to see The Tin Drum and Apocalypse Now is a solid idea.

The family, with Anna’s mother Mémé (Emmanuelle Riva) in tow, is attending the birthday of Jean’s mother, Amandine (Bernadette Lafont), an occasion which brings together many aunts and uncles and cousins. Families keep arriving in the movie, but Delpy’s feeling for their individual situations – and the actor’s performances – prove unnaturally good at distinguishing the blur of faces. The film eschews formalism, but it has clear outcomes that shine through the casual interaction; Albertine and her cousin are pulling each other’s hair after 30 seconds together, but it takes the adults a little longer.

The clan eat, drink, go to the beach, then eat and drink some more, and even as Anna and Albertine fret over the fall to Earth of the American space station Skylab (which actually burnt up above Western Australia) the children are besotted by American cartoons. This France is a nation in flux, hugely traditional and deeply divided. "No family’s perfect," says one uncle, Fredo (Jean-Louis Coulloc’h), after his wife has a creepy encounter with another brother-in-law, Roger (Denis Menochet), and conversations almost in passing reveal memories of German occupation, the wounds of bitter colonial wars, and the momentous struggles between right and left from the 1960s.

"No country is perfect," Delpy might be saying, and she shows how these sometimes deeply flawed people pass on their problems to their children, who are alternately disciplined and allowed to run wild as an improvised gang. The children live in a parallel world to the adults, and Delpy has great fun with 17-year-old Christian (Vincent Lacoste), who is desperate to act like an adult even as he sits at the children’s table. His ability to strike ludicrous poses in front of his peers is contrasted with how he’s kept in subservient line by his father.

Each generation thinks it will be different, but each is a continuation of the one prior. "My daughter won’t be anyone’s housewife," pledges Anna, who has a habit of making declarations that grow steadily more combative. Delpy catches conversations in passing, and shows how momentous moments in a family’s history are averted almost by accident. The adults almost brawl, the children go to a local disco – where the immortal phrase "I’m going to dance punk now" is uttered – and this vast naturalistic tapestry proves to be greatly entertaining and deeply illuminating.


1 hour 53 min