Movie Review: ‘Brother and Sister’ is an Unemotional Melodramatic Disaster
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Writer: Arnaud Desplechin, Julie Peyr
Stars: Marion Cotillard, Melvil Poupaud, and Golshifteh Farahani
Synopsis: Alice and Louis are estranged siblings who have been avoiding each other for over twenty years and are forced to reunite after a tragedy.
Arnaud Desplechin’s latest feature, Brother and Sister (Frère et sœur), is a total unemotional disaster – a laughable melodrama that feels like a parody of modern French cinema. Not even Marion Cotillard and Melvil Poupaud can save this one.
I don’t think Arnaud Desplechin gets the credit he deserves, at least in the United States. Yes, he may have concocted several divisive features in the past couple of years, but they are different from one another – he doesn’t stick to the same dramatic trappings as other French directors do today. Instead, he finds different ways to convey emotions onto the screen instead of revolving around cliches or French cinema bromide. His early work in the 90s and early 2000s is still the highlight of his career, but it is fascinating to explore his present films and see how he has changed, both as a director and screenwriter. The fire of his early work is still present in his modern work, but with less intensity, unfortunately. Nevertheless, last year, he released Deception (Tromperie, in its original French title), a novel-to-screen adaptation of Philip Roth’s literary work of the same name. It showed audiences that Desplechin can still do creative yet cinematic films, with a play in cinematic and theatrical conventions that lead to a fascinating experience. In addition, his talent as an actor’s director is still firm, with its two leads (Léa Seydoux and Denis Podalydès) delivering great performances, easily making it one of the reasons why the film works as a whole.
Unfortunately, his latest, Brother and Sister, is a total disaster, possibly his worst feature to date – an unemotional melodrama that feels like a parody, except everyone is hanging on to a different joke. Brother and Sister is about, well… a brother and sister, Louis (Melvil Poupaud) and Alice (Marion Cotillard), who for almost twenty years have hated each other, never speaking a word to each other during all that time. The former is a teacher and a poet, while the latter is a very successful actress, who’s performing in an adaptation of James Joyce’s short story, ‘The Dead’. The crux of their hate for each other is fueled by envy of each other’s success – a poisoned relationship forged by ego. So, what’s the reason behind this dual hatred among the siblings? Louis wrote a family memoir that revealed plenty of secrets. And Alice sued him for such action because it felt like a betrayal of their family. This detail, in particular, is displayed in the most baffling fashion, thrown away in cheesy and eye-roll-inducing dialogue as if it wasn’t something important to the fracture of their bond.
A moment of total catastrophe unites them; Louis’ child dies, and Alice arrives at the wake, aggravating his hatred towards her after all those years of silence. If you’d thought things weren’t going to get even more tragic, there’s another tragedy involving their elderly parents. Tragedy upon tragedy, all of which seems detached from reality and ends up feeling like a lampoon of French dramas. I have both liked and disliked some of Arnaud Desplechin’s films, but you learn a lot from him on the two sides of the coin. In his successful features, you see that Desplechin has a knack for directing actors to great performances, and his pen is humanistic. In his failures, there’s still potential; although they might not be up to par, he uses them as a learning curve for his next project. With Brother and Sister, which is his most significant failure of them all, there is no sensation that he will learn from it. The film is concocted by a “fill in the blank” procedure, all of which are familiar tropes and trappings of French cinema. It is entirely nonsensical and truly unfunny (if it is even meant to aim at comedy).
Desplechin tried to aim amidst two different strands, the humanism in A Christmas Tale and the enjoyable ridiculousness of Deception. Yet, it ends in a complete amalgamation of the two to a headache-inducing degree. Moments where vital information was supposed to be shared or the two siblings shared their thoughts are cut immediately. Emotionless for ninety-five perfect of its runtime, it feels as if Desplechin lost sight of what he wanted to do as if he went to production without a script and came up with everything on the spot. What starts as a parable of toxic hatred amongst family members turns into an overwrought movie that overdoes its melodramatic whimsy to a self-important note. You scratch your head in confusion in its first act and end with a palm in your face during its second one. What happens in its third act? Your mind starts to wander elsewhere. You begin to worry about where your personal items are (car keys, wallet, phone charger) and all of the chores you need to do the next day that would be more enjoyable to do.
Not even Marion Cotillard and Melvil Poupaud, both very talented actors, can save the picture. Their screen presence and performances add to the vain experience, with many scenes of crying, fainting, screaming, and narcissism. Although he does deserve some flowers for his acclaimed work, Arnaud Desplechin might have done his worst feature to date with Brother and Sister. Unfortunately, after displaying some creativity with his work on his previous film, he follows it up with a total disaster.