Arnaud Desplechin’s scintillating family ensemble charts a toxic sibling rivalry, with Marion Cotillard and Melvil Poupard.
On a good day, and when the stars are correctly aligned, Marion Cotillard is the greatest actor working in the world today. This is, of course, an entirely subjective opinion, but when she is able to land material worthy of her formidable talents as a performer, not to mention a concentrated nexus for big screen emotion, there really is no-one better on the field.
She is expert at conveying a sense of inner tragedy, wielding her expressive exterior to channel wells of intense and sincere sentiment, all drawn from a vividly imagined, interior world. In short, she has the ability to cry and smile and you have no idea which emotion is in the advantage.
In Brother and Sister, Arnaud Desplechin’s return to vintage-level family ensemble (and up there with his breakout 2007 film, A Christmas Tale), he gifts Cotillard with one of her most psychologically tumultuous and multifaceted roles to date: that of a lauded stage actress named Alice who is engaged in a bitter, decades-long rivalry with her author brother, Louis (Melvil Poupaud).
The film’s opening scene shows her weeping as she attempts and fails to reconnect with Louis on the occasion of his young son’s untimely death. He yells at her, explodes, ejecting her from his house and his life for reasons that are never clearly stated. Later, in a flash forward of half-a-decade, we learn she has sued him for defamation, a result of the poison prose used to feather his critically acclaimed literary output.
Yet Desplechin drops in these morsels of context without ever allowing a character to articulate, with total clarity, what it is that is churning the bile that is causing such extreme rancour. Their sense of abject loathing is so acute, that when they do accidentally run into each other, she instantly drops to the floor in a fit of vapours, while he swings his coat and dashes off like Dracula in the face of encroaching sunlight.
Brother and Sister is about how difficult it is to remember the reasons for hating someone. And even if you do remember, it ponders whether the punishment we level on the perpetrator always fits the crime. If, indeed, a “crime” even exists. Alice and Louis have the resolve of their animosity tested when their father and step-mother are involved in a bizarre traffic accident, leaving them both in critical shape.
The unfathomable pain of sudden death is contrasted with the more protracted and cerebral acceptance of a parent slipping onto the home stretch of life, and this toxic relationship between siblings causes the pair great additional suffering. All the while, Desplechin makes sure to infer that these are two people who, in their interests, abilities and personalities, should be very close, and there are some beautiful and provocative scenes later on which hint towards the extent of their formative bond.
To emphasise the extent of the pain experienced by his leads, Desplechin depicts their attempts at numbing the perpetual sadness through chemical means, and also the consolations of religion, as Catholic Louis haphazardly joins his opium-freebasing shrink at the Synagogue (in leather shoes, tut tut) to celebrate Yom Kippur.
Alice, meanwhile, requires lots and lots of strong pills to help her continue performing in a play while all the real drama is happening off stage. The film is strong on the idea that the constant search for ways to stifle suffering and psychological trauma can actually serve to compound that suffering, and prolong it rather than bring it to a head.
This is Desplechin at his most relaxed and masterful, and the pleasure watching him as he sashays through the story and around the vast ensemble of characters while always keeping his eye on the thematic prize is immense indeed. His writing provides the scenario with a runaway momentum, and he even manages to frame the expected conclusion in a way that is lyrical rather than perfunctory. It’s Cotillard canon, and one for the director’s top tier, without doubt.
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Published 21 May 2022
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