All is not well with the Vuillard clan and something’s gone rotten in Roubaix. While their matriarch lies ill, treading the line between the here and the hereafter, the paterfamilias is left to contend with his three headstrong children. Though the youngest, who lives a stable married life, more often than not serves as ballast between more electric older siblings, sparks fly when the other two meet — or at least they would, had the eldest daughter not banished her hard-drinking middle brother from the family.
Though the French auteur has always freely recycled themes and plot points (with more than half the characters in his 14 features carrying the surnames Dedalus and Vuillard), “Brother and Sister” seems more like a retread (and a retreat) than anything that’s come prior, marking a new step forward for the lauded director by taking a disappointing step back.
Less a remake than a reworking of the director’s two most accomplished efforts, “Brother and Sister” lifts a narrative from 2008’s “A Christmas Tale” and a split story structure from 2004’s “Kings and Queen,” while stripping away the caffeine buzz and novelistic digressions that secured for the auteur such a high perch on France’s arthouse Olympus. Like a musician returning to an earlier songbook with a downbeat timbre and a paired down set of instruments, “Brother and Sister” feels, for good or ill, like Desplechin Unplugged.
The film establishes its chilly tone right from the start, exploring a spartan middle-class apartment, decorated with little more than a wall-hanging photo of Franz Kafka, as grief fills all the empty space. Inside and on the couch, bereaved parents Louis (Melvil Poupaud, who had played the younger brother’s role in “A Christmas Tale”) and Faunia (Golshifteh Farahani) mourn their six-year-old son. Outside at the door, older sister Alice (Marion Cotillard) stands paralyzed by an acute and inchoate loathing for Louis so intense that she is simply unable to cross the threshold and join the rest of her family.
That Alice is an actress with a mystique to guard and Louis a writer who spills family secrets on the page comes as one half-hearted response as to the root of this hate, but for the most part, Desplechin is more interested in exploring the ‘how’ than the ‘why.’ As seen in those opening moments, and as reiterated throughout, the siblings’ toxic relationship assumes a physical dimension, choreographing their movement and turning whatever space they both occupy into a kind of theater. Even when she’s not at work performing in an adaptation of “The Dead,” Alice moves through her personal life with fixed blocking and stage logic, especially when her brother is nearby.
That choice of play is no happy accident, as questions of mortality infuse the film’s every somber moment. Picking up several years later, once Louis and Faunia have isolated themselves on Pyrenean mountain top and Alice undergoes the most put-together midlife malaise you ever did see (Cotillard already did the de-glam routine, won an Oscar for her troubles, and now she’ll stay her movie star best, thank you very much) the film sends the two warring siblings on a collision course once a semi-truck does the same to their elderly parents.
After a tensely orchestrated roadside crash leaves mom in a coma, dad at least able to speak, and neither very long for this world, the three Vuillard siblings return to the nest, forcing the warring pair to dance around one another in an ever more elaborate game of cat-and-mouse. Youngest son Fidèle (Benjamin Siksou) often acts as a go-between, though the character isn’t really written to stand out. Indeed, few characters really are, and if Desplechin wanted a title to match the bombast of this film’s more melodramatic moments, he could easily have titled the project “When Worlds Collide.”
In the film’s construction, both Louis and Alice are planets onto themselves, with satellites around them and shared negative gravitational pull. Alongside the pair’s non-starter brother and his caring husband, Louis has a friend and benefactor Zwy (Patrick Timsit, in one of the few supporting roles to really pop) and a sympathetic wife to listen to his opium and scotch-soaked reminiscences, while Alice has an ardent fan (“Beyond the Hills” star Cosmina Stratan) and an adolescent son (Max Baissette de Malglaive) to gaze upon her with either adulation or annoyance. None really exist beyond the two main orbits, making this world feel rather small and self-absorbed.
Still, Desplechin remains a gifted filmmaker, and finds a number of elegant visual tools to evoke the story’s central (and lone point of) conflict while pulling affecting performances from his two leads. Only his script, co-written with Julie Peyr, builds from a conceit it neither wants nor knows how to address. If you’re wondering how does a love turn acrid, and how does a hate manifest and metastasize upon the heart, you’ll have to be satisfied with a non-committal answer half-asked as a question, “Jealousy, maybe, I guess?”
Burrowing into a toxic relation already well in media res, “Brother and Sister” convincingly tracks the emotional and physical toll of animus, the way it can poison every part of a life. It then does so again, and again until it eventually runs out of steam.
At its root, the film both requires and rewards a pre-existing emotional investment that it never tries to build. As to why, one need only look to those characters’ names and the familiar stories they cycle through. Like the Glass family was to J.D. Salinger, these Vuillards and their travails would seem to be of intense significance to the filmmaker, and there is of course a long and storied tradition of artists returning to older work, reexamining it in new light and through new eyes. Why shouldn’t Desplechin partake? Why shouldn’t he isolate and expand this or that element, seeing how it looks under a different coat of paint or sung in a different key?
Just how much value all this has to those not already onboard, heading to see the jam band, wondering what notes they will or will not play, however, is an altogether different question.
“Brothers and Sister” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.