Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 07, 2023 3:57 pm 
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In 'Brother and Sister' Desplechin returns to the theme of grandiosely squabbling families in a shriller, less convincing tone

Pillaging from some of his own personal greatest hits - a narrative and the Vuillard family names from 2008’s A Christmas Tale and a split story structure from 2004’s Kings and Queen, after an uneven but sometimes celebrated career path, Arnaud Desplechin seems with Brother and Sister, which stars Melvil Poupaud and Marion Cotillard as the titular siblings, to be desperately but not very coherently trying to recapture past glories. There are, as usual with Desplechin, moments of style and flair, but the incoherence and pretension are alienating, and the warmth and humor of earlier triumphs are lacking.

Though it's off-putting and silly, there's no lack of energy in the action. As Guy Lodge points out in a rather damning English language review for Variety, you can't fault this movie for starting slow. In the first ten minutes the two, we learn, violently but inexplicably estranged siblings curse each other out at the wake of the six-year-old son of poet brother Louis Vuillard (Poupaud) with actress sister Alice (Cotillard) calling him "an indecent monster"; there immediately follows a road accident sequence where a teenage driver is paralyzed and an old couple (parents of the siblings) is smashed up by a giant truck after they stop to help the girl, and wind up in the hospital, near death.

The "no bones" "dialed-to-11" melodrama thus telegraphed at the start is too shrill, and this comes out early in Melvil Poupaud. He's usually an understated actor (winningly so in Desplechin's Christmas Tale), and his grinning scream-fest at the get-go rings particularly false. Also one wonders why in his current state Poupaud's character has come to be living in such a remote place his shrink friend Zwy (Patrick Timsit) must rent a horse to go fetch him, other than that it looks cool. But beyond the false tone, what most bothers one overall is the failure to flesh out backstories, even to the extent of leaving the very premise of the piece, the implacable sibling resentment, forever blurred.

Time sequences in Julie Peyr’s screenplay jump around, sometimes confusingly. The trajectory is toward reconciliation, one that's assumed to be essential, and when it comes not remotely convincing. For two dozen years the two have been avoiding and hating each other. Why? Alice's "hate" for Louis seems to have popped out when, after a slow start, he suddenly wins a big literary prize. But giddiness in Cotillard's reading of lines at this moment makes one unclear it she's even serious. Maybe the issue was a revealing memoir he published for which, a throwaway line hints, she actually sued him. Anyway all this was in the past. Now Louis is a mess. He's unproductive, grieving the lost son and doing a lot of drugs and alcohol: his first act on arriving at the hospital for the parents is to score opium and other things. Alice is now famous as an actress (a big subway poster attests), touring with a production from Joyce's "The Dead," so what's wrong? She will later throw all this away, along with her husband and son. The latter we can understand since she paid no attention to them.

The siblings have a series of separate set pieces (Poupaud's often involve the grinning, the showing of teeth), inexplicable outbursts of enthusiasm. Alice's are prima donna moments. When she first appears she's in a classic pose backstage in front of her mirror, declaring that she can't perform today - and this is before she's learned her parents are at death's door. She has an illustrative meetup with a journalist and a more extended and cloying one with Lucia (Cosmina Stratan), a penniless young Romanian super-fan a more cautious celebrity would not have allowed to latch onto her. The journalist's interview takes place in an empty restaurant in the morning, where Alice prepares by ordering a tall gin on the rocks. When the journalist asks not about the un-famous gay bro, Fidèle (Benjamin Siksou) who lives in the provinces in Desplechin's native Roubaix, but about Louis, she gets up and walks out, gin barely sipped. Couldn't she just have said, "Next question"? But then there would have been no drama.

Brother and Sister/Frère et sœur, 108 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 20,2022. Screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (Mar. 2-12, 2023, NYC). AlloCiné press rating 4.1 (82%); AlloCiné spectators score 2.4 (48%); Metacritic rating 60%. Screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (Mar. 2-12, 2023, NYC). Showtimes:
Sunday, March 5 at 3:30pm (Q&A with Melvil Poupaud)
Tuesday, March 7 at 9:00pm

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