Somewhere along the line, not all that long ago, Arnaud Desplechin ceased to be a marketable name in the U.S. film biz. While certainly never a properly, consistently lauded figure over here, the now-62-year-old French auteur and Cannes mainstay has nevertheless found audiences via the likes of IFC and Magnolia, who put out his last film, Ismael’s Ghost, to get U.S. distribution. That was six years ago now, and in the time since, Desplechin has released two more features (the misunderstood procedural Oh Mercy! and the pokey, elliptical Philip Roth adaptation Deception), a television miniseries (En thérapie), and directed (and filmed) a production of Angels in America for Comédie-Française, though none of these have found their way to American audiences.
It seems excitement has waned for this formerly hip filmmaker, yet little about his approach and voice has changed since his 1996 breakthrough My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument, nor has his stable of actors, an elite crew he largely discovered, boasting the likes of Matthieu Almaric and Marion Cotillard, which makes the disinterest in getting his recent work distributed here all the more baffling and frustrating. That said, one can imagine the mischievous, purposefully indulgent self-referentialism of Ismael’s Ghost and its predecessor My Golden Days to be a turn-off for the uninitiated (they both act as pseudo-sequels to my Sex Life…), compounded by those films’ mean, unemphasized sense of humor and ironic self-critique; the dry dramatics of Oh Mercy! and Deception operated less like an antidote to these potential marketing hurdles, and rather more like another potential hindrance.
Still, despite these recent setbacks, there’s good reason to believe that Desplechin could make a grand return to U.S. art houses and critical favor, and that his latest, Frère et Soeur (AKA Brother and Sister) could be the film to make this happen. Premiering in the U.S. thanks to Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival, Brother and Sister bears the filmmaker’s off-kilter sensibility channeled into a searing domestic drama starring Melvil Poupaud and Marion Cotillard as the brother and sister of the title, Louis and Alice. Opening on a pair of tragedies — first, a wake for Louis’ (Poupaud) young son, and then an elaborate car accident that leaves the duo’s parents hospitalized and near death — Brother and Sister skips back and forth through time to fill in the siblings’ backstory and reveal the origins of their oft-referenced hatred for one another. Although we’re initially lead to believe that the rift began somewhere around the child’s wake in the opening scene, Desplechin’s screenplay ends up taking us further into the past (and then back again to the dreary present), attempting to get us closer to the truth while never quite allowing us to see the whole picture.
This narrative approach proves key to Desplechin’s vision for Brother and Sister which might have otherwise been camp-adjacent high drama, but is instead redirected toward a classically cinematic exploration of selective memory and subjectivity (not unlike My Golden Days, but without the meta elements). We are allowed to glean a general picture, and by the film’s conclusion no grand mystery truly still persists, but important plot and character details still elude us, especially in the case of the family matriarch, who remains in a coma for the picture’s duration, unable to defend herself against accusations of cruelty. Open to appreciation on a number of different levels, Brother and Sister is pure Desplechin minus the self-mythologizing, a slight reset that still maintains the director’s sly humor and destabilizing approach to sequencing, and featuring two major performances from Poupaud and (especially) Cotillard, who navigate the film’s significant tonal shifts with considerable, affecting grace.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 10.