Skylab (France)

2011 France

SUNDAY 1st December 10.00 am
TUESDAY 3rd December 8.00 pm
RUNNING TIME 91 minutes


In 1979, during the Summer holidays, in a house somewhere in Brittany, a whole family (parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and other relatives) are gathered to celebrate Granny Amandine’s sixty-seventh birthday. Albertine, who was ten years old at the time, vividly recounts this brief but life-changing experience.


It’s mid-July, 1979, and the American space station, Skylab, is plummeting back to earth. In spite of the title, this event merely serves to set the date on Julie Delpy’s film, for the setting is rural Brittany, France, which, as we now know, is a long way from the eventual crash site around the south coast of Western Australia. Rather than in space, Skylab’s focus is on matters very much more down to earth as some twenty-four members of an elderly lady’s family converge on her large, country house to celebrate her birthday with good food, wine and companionship.

Skylab is about ordinary people and their behaviour with all its human fallibility. As the family gathers around the dinner table, set out on the lawn, there is the usual small talk between people who haven’t seen each other for some time. Rude jokes are told, songs are sung, the children go off and play and nothing of any great importance happens. Although much of this is amusing, it would be a mistake to describe Skylab as a comedy. On the other hand, it would be even more of a mistake to conclude that Skylab is dull, pedestrian viewing.

As groups break away and form new groups, the camera follows them around, with Delpy putting them under the magnifying glass and giving the audience a voyeuristic pleasure in sharing their experiences. The children are particularly engaging as they bicker, show off and generally struggle with the inevitability of maturity and the mystery of that most important matter – sex.

All of this seems entirely convincing. Every member of the cast gives a performance so natural that you could believe Delpy just assembled them and told them to do whatever felt right. But appearances can be deceptive and it is the skill of the director that makes the film work. Like an entertainer keeping a dozen plates spinning at the top of poles, she moves, with great dexterity, from group to group, spending just enough time to play out the scene and milk it for laughter or poignancy or a mix of both.

While Skylab may not be a major work, yet there is much to savour. Without violence or sex (although there is a little of both) and without spotlighting one or two characters above the rest, there is a fascination of being a “fly on the wall” and of being privy to these people’s private lives. Skylab shows that the minutiae of human behaviour can, when observed as sharply as this, be just as diverting as the most improbable and grandiose of sci-fi spectaculars.

Source: Rotten Tomatoes,


News reports about the UARS satellite falling to Earth came just a few days too late for the San Sebastián film festival world premiere of Julie Delpy’s fourth directing project. That was a shame – it’d have been quite the PR stunt for Le Skylab, her family comedy set around the falling of the titular space station in 1979, which won the special jury prize at the Spanish event on Sunday. The preoccupation with where it might land caused something of a media circus at the time – a San Francisco newspaper offered $10,000 for the first piece of the wreckage to be delivered to its offices – and it clearly played on the mind of the then 10-year-old Delpy. “A lot of the lines in the film are literally out of my memory [of the time],” says Delpy, lounging on a sofa. “And some characters are based on people I knew. The main little girl in the film, Albertine, is basically me.”

Le Skylab charts the coming together of an extended family on a summer’s day in Brittany. Only one of the characters – Albertine’s mother, Anna, played by Delpy herself – seems at all worried about Skylab’s impending crash-landing. The rest concern themselves with traditional family preoccupations: sex, squabbling and politics. “It’s a movie about people coming together to drink and eat lamb,” says Delpy. “I wanted it to feel like an idyllic afternoon, with an undertone that something could happen, just like the Skylab is lurking to fall on to them. There’s also a bit of tension – you can sense that there are political differences between these people. As the day progresses, they get more drunk, more tired, and things start to come out.”

The film is richly comic. Bright, summertime colours intersperse with the period swagger of the late 70s and the soundtrack buzzes with popular classics. But there are also plenty of darker moments. Delpy’s real-life father, Albert, plays the mentally ill Uncle Herbert, a character who is equal parts comic and tragic, particularly during a failed attempt to hang himself with a hosepipe. “I like to mix serious subjects – like the uncle trying to kill himself and being saved by the children – with the humour,” says Delpy. “To me it’s important: life is made of dark and light moments going back and forth, and it just never stops. The typical family is a mix of light and dark.”

For Delpy’s avatar, Albertine (played by newcomer Lou Avarez), the trip to visit her aunts, uncles and cousins is as much about the start of her sexual awakening as it is about seeing the old folk. She falls for the teenage blond boy she meets on a nudist beach and fools around, playing doctors and nurses, with her pre-teen cousins.

“I definitely played doctors with my cousins,” laughs Delpy, covering her face with embarrassment. “Boys, girls, everyone mixed together. It was a big party. I had 25 cousins so, you know, every summer we had a lot of fun. We didn’t all play doctors together – some were older. It wasn’t an orgy or anything. It stayed pretty cute.”

Falling for the boy on the beach is based on a real experience of Delpy’s, though unlike the “Blue Lagoon fantasy” boy of the film, he wasn’t blond. “I had my first crush when I was 11 or 12, and didn’t get the guy, obviously,” she laughs. “He was older and I was kind of chubby and with glasses. No one wanted me! I think he’s a pilot now.” The film doesn’t shy away from depicting these first flushes of sexuality honestly – something Delpy knows may be controversial. “Children’s sexuality is so taboo, and people are saying it’s so bad,” she sighs. “I know I’m going to be killed for saying it, but I believe exploring sexuality is not something horrible for children. If no one’s forcing anyone and it’s pure experimenting, I believe it’s good for children. I explored sexuality when I played doctors with my cousins, and I don’t believe there was anything traumatic about those experiences at all.”

Delpy says she doesn’t worry about her two-year-old son, Leo, keeping these sorts of secrets from her as he grows up. “It’s his choice. But, even at two and a half, I see the way he looks at women – it’s really funny. I’m rarely naked in front of him, because I don’t run around naked that much, but if I am, he looks at me like you have no idea. You can already see his interest in women, but it’s very pure and cute. He wants to touch breasts, all the time!” She bursts out laughing. “Well, not all the time, but every once in a while.”

Source: Joe Utichi – The Guardian 27/9/2011,