It’s the war. The opening of Arnaud Desplechin’s new film is incredibly intense. No punches, no gunfights, no blood. But words, looks, gestures.
A little boy has died. When his father learns of his sister’s arrival in the middle of a wake, he explodes with hatred for her. We do not know exactly why, and despite numerous fragments returning to the episodes of this family history, we will never know. Undoubtedly there is nothing to explain here just to record a state of relationships between people.
One may find it indecent to use the word “war” in connection with this conflict between sister and brother, however extreme it may be when war – which that term generally means, armies shooting at each other – is on our doorstep . Or if the political landscape only sounds of heightened virulence, social anger, ecological emergencies. And that means.
But if, on the contrary, what the film explores was all the more adapted and burning? It’s certainly not geopolitics, let alone psychology. It is, most precisely, where a work of art has its possible place, the resonance setting of affects, impulses, fears, representations that are suffered as often as desired.
Arnaud Desplechin knows no better than anyone how to solve the world’s misfortunes. He knows, he feels, that it is also about intimate shadows, about forms of being and acting, about speech and silence, about fears that sometimes incurably, sometimes fatally determine the way of existence for oneself and for others. No more, but no less.
Fuck general knowledge
brother and sister, which hits screens this Friday 20th May on the same day it is presented in competition at Cannes, is a moving film. Stunning accuracy and brutality. It’s not a nice movie, it’s not a cool movie.
It is not without pride that he asserts his rousing tension in life, his uncompromising attitude with explanatory sentimentality – including, of course, the elements that everyone would like to identify with what we know badly, incompletely, but above all in passing record (“the record”, it is the film, it is the act of cinema) of his personal life.
Alice (Marion Cotillard), caught in her hate and in the suffering of her hate. | The pact
Yes, the director, born in Roubaix, like his characters, also has a sister, Marie Desplechin, a well-known writer with whom he does not get along, as is well known. And yes, he was at odds with his former partner Marianne Denicourt, and there was a lawsuit to prevent a film from being made, a book from being made – situations that come up again in the film. So what? crap public notoriety! Watch the movie!
Artists make big business out of what they have, including their lives and stories, with what they do. brother and sister is an adaptation of Laclos and Faulkner. And it’s part of a radical and fiery line in which the name of Ingmar Bergman sparkles with a black glow. And also a little Cassavetes, quoted verbatim. None of this matters.
All that matters is Alice, and it’s Louis. Alice, who continues her job as a theater actress; Louis, who no longer wants to be a writer and has fled to the mountains with his wife and her sorrows. What counts is each individual’s suffering, the thousand ways to follow what is moving away and maybe one day crushing or bringing closer.
One movement, one look
What matters is every word and the vibration of every word. It’s the movement of the actress Alice getting into her car as she drives out of a performance like a calvary, not listening to the spectator’s dazed admiration, it’s the mad gleam in Louis’ eyes as his friend comes and pulls him out Retirement. Because, as you can see, tragedy has an unfortunate tendency to add to tragedy.
We are in the bistro and in the supermarket, we are in the Bible and Oresteia. In this world, absurdity and injustice reign. Great news. We’re going to have to deal with that.
Louis (Melvil Poupaud), caught up in a hatred we’re not sure if it came from him or his sister. | The pact
Alice’s hatred of Louis is absurd, and the way in which the film doesn’t immediately distance her from what opposes her is completely unfair. And it’s beautiful. Because alive, on the move, ready to fly away (literally) like it’s about to collapse, drunk on alcohol, opium, anger, tension.
Circulating from one to the other of the poles – poles as magnetic as opposite – as the title says, but also between present and past, brother and sister is a film of breathtaking speed that no counter can measure.
The chemical reactions—explosions, depressions, dizziness, light and dark hallucinations—that Marion Cotillard and Melvil Poupaud evoke unfold like chains of entangled effects, far beyond narrative causalities and romantic arrangements that are nonetheless not absent, including a spectacular accident and a wonderful declaration of love.
The Magic Triangle
Marion Cotillard isn’t Alice, she’s playing Alice. Melvil Poupaud isn’t Louis, he’s acting Ludwig. Desplechin was not only always (since his first medium-length film, The life of the dead) a goldsmith of precision in working with actors. He’s an explorer of the game’s infinite resources, he’s made it a crucial stepping stone to one of his finest films, Esther Kahn, as experiments Leo plays “In the Company of Men”, and there is no doubt that he continued to explore its mysteries during his productions for the theater. With him, what the actors do is not a means, it is the film itself.
Beyond the legitimate, but still rather ridiculous, laudatory superlatives the two actors so deserve, what is striking is the uniqueness of what each develops in this magical triangle, the apex of which is their character, a second, the filmmaker, and a third, her Partner, even remotely, if he or she is not on site.
A wild landscape
There is great art there of extreme sophistication, constantly oscillating between maximum intensity and tiny vibrations, making the film a kind of jungle of emotions, a wild landscape inhabited by life forms adapted to the most difficult terrains or the most subtle.
Faunia (Golshifteh Farahani), goddess of beauty and wisdom, but who can hardly help her Louis. | The pact
This world is uniquely populated according to multiple modes of existence – memories, imagination, religion-inspired presences, the remnants of other films, poems and novels…
But it’s also populated by half-human, half-mythological beings, including the wife of Louis, the embodiment of all beauty and all wisdom, brilliantly played by Golshifteh Farahani, matching the perfection of her performance Paterson, by Jim Jarmusch.
Or the other character of Desplechin’s inscrutable Judeophilia, the perfect boyfriend, portrayed by Patrick Timsit. But probably more than that, this creature of a fantastic child who was christened Joseph, a sort of Shakespearean Ariel who defies the impulses of a modern child.
One hesitates to call these fictional beings characters, so much their way of appearing and acting defies all common rules of dramaturgy. They are. They are there, in the shot, in the duration of the scene, nothing has to announce or justify their presence, nothing is promised about what will happen to them next. And that’s enough.
The same applies to what happens in the course of the film, which is radically singular without any “experimental” depiction. brother and sister is full of adventures, conflicts, gags, painful, phantasmagorical moments that border on the indecent. And certainly “he tells a story,” according to the established formula, in the sense that whatever happens means that the situation at the end will not be the same as it was at the beginning.
But that doesn’t matter so much. The important thing, where it throbs and hugs and questions and stirs up, is in the present. The presence of each sequence, the tender or violent modulations of affect that each encounter, exchange, confrontation or camaraderie generates. The film could have started a year earlier, or ten years earlier, or a thousand years earlier. It could otherwise break off or continue or branch.
Of course he would say something else. But it would be, without altering this fleshly matter, inhabited, irrigated with blood, tears, fears, joys and curiosities that make it what it is: a living being.
Film reviews by Jean-Michel Frodon can be found in the show “Cultural Affinities” by Tewfik Hakem, Saturdays from 6 to 7 on France Culture.
brother and sister
by Arnaud Desplechin
Starring Marion Cotillard, Melville Poupaud, Golshifteh Farahani
Released: May 20, 2022
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