Bourgeois hate and self-pity: Brother and Sister (2022)

28 October, 2022

For about thirty-one years, since the release of his medium-length film La vie des morts, Arnaud Desplechin has constructed one of the most well-planned reputations in the field of directors that hold auteur status. This is visible in all of his films. The lion’s share takes place in (or makes references to) Roubaix, the town in Northern France where the director was born, three have the same recurrent character, whose modestly ironic name is Paul Dédalus, a few of them create a subject or theme out of the unrelenting hate between the members of the same family (usually, a brother and a sister), most follow the anxieties and disillusions of a well-educated, yet neurotic French middle class with carefully-studied negligence in their structure. I cannot think of any other contemporary director that would cite his previous films so discreetly, but especially so often. For example, in his recent Brother and Sister / Frère et soeur, which is almost a stylized remake of his best film, A Christmas Tale / Un conte de Noël (2008), one of the secondary characters is named Faunia – exactly like another important secondary character in Un conte de Noël or another from Ismael’s Ghosts / Les fantômes d’Ismaël (2017). With small gestures such as this one, Desplechin always leaves behind traces for those who will want to read his films as a grand and coherent opera.

It’s a deliberate characteristic that somehow closens him to a classical director like Éric Rohmer, who believed that films should be similar to novels in terms of their ambitions and structures and who, in his early period, did exactly what Desplechin does in many of his films: leaving off-screen voices narrate parts of the story that seem equivalent to pages of literature. Like in the case of Rohmer, this commentary is novelesque and ironic, if not even outright cynical. However, it signals – with all his irony, seriousness, and taste for high culture – that which makes Desplechin’s films have the strange texture of some comedies in which humor doesn’t overpass the level of commentary, or of tragedies that are directed with calculated amusement.

His films give a sense of familiarity (not in the least because the director tends to always work with the same actors), but also one of repetition. The protagonists in his films tend to be self-destructive, vicious, selfish, insecure, and neurotic, having a slightly pretentious vocabulary (for those with an ear for French, otherwise, the latter is probably lost in translation). Yet the unflattering collective portrait of the French middle class composed by Desplechin and his group of collaborators, who also hail from such a background, is a rarefied equivalent of how educated, bohemian-leaning middle-class Frenchmen (ironically called bobos in France, meaning bourgeois bohème) mock other educated, bohemian-leaning middle-class Frenchmen. Desplechin, starting with his films from the 90s, has managed to give a voice to this status-related anxiety, which he has captured in an aesthetically respectable form — most of his films are an updated version of the traditional Kammerspiel, i.e. the film that uses few (usually interior) locations, relies on strong conflict and dialogue, and that comes very close to filmed theatre.

Still from Brother and Sister

One of Desplechin’s most efficient tricks is to tickle his audience with the promise of a general diagnostic on this status-related anxiety, scattering symptoms all across the film and then letting the spectator do whatever they will with this ambiguous and contradictory information. The pretext in Brother and Sister – like the one in The Life of the Dead or the one in A Christmas Tale – is a grave medical event that obligates the members of a family extended across three generations to face each other. It’s a stereotype that is used even in melodramas or in low-quality series, but Desplechin manages to give a new sheen to it. Those who are seeing one of his films for the first time will probably be awed at how the characters speak to each other – brutally, tearing each other apart from an emotional standpoint, saying things that are hard to digest in different tones. (On the other hand, after being exposed several times to his films, this furious honesty that is hard to own in real life becomes what it truly is, and that is a literary trick that has been exercised to perfection.) In Brother and Sister, the protagonists of these harsh exchanges are Alice (performed by Marion Cotillard) and Louis (performed by Melvil Poupaud), two brothers that are separated by contempt for unspecified reasons. Like in his other similarly-themes films, Desplechin occasionally leaves some hint of said reason, including a suggestion towards some early incestuous desires. The truth, however, remains outside of the film. What Brother and Sister shows are rather the effects of this magnetic repulsion between Alice and Louis – for example, in one of the scenes, Alice prefers to faint rather than allow herself to be in the proximity of her brother. The script cleverly prepares the inevitable confrontation of the two and amplifies its aims only to delay it over and over again, so that, in a scene where they meet due to happenstance, the few things that they say to each other are already soaked in a multitude of meanings.

Considering how these dramatic effects are spread out, the film is good. By staging two insecure and self-obsessed characters, the film itself however seems to be written and directed by an artist that is fawning over himself and the seriousness of his themes. The secondary character in Brother and Sister gravitates around the neuroses of the two protagonists without many chances for themselves. Desplechin also offered a small role to Cosmina Stratan (who performs a poor Romanian woman that is obsessed with Alice’s star-like charisma), but she is also used solely to amplify the protagonist – as if the director would give an actor an object that only makes him use the upper part of his body. Golshifteh Farahani is treated similarly in the film, and there is only one scene (a very good one, otherwise) that allows her to perform something other than her emotional support for Louis. It’s a shame because one of Desplechin’s qualities is to usually obtain very nuanced performances from his actors – I prefer Mathieu Amalric’s similar performance of neurosis in A Christmas Tale to the one that Melvil Poupaud shows here, which, by comparison, only seems to be a study in the various intensity levels of rage.

Marion Cotillard in Brother and Sister

Besides the fact that the film’s script is burdened by the presence of the two protagonists, their narcissistic trajectory throughout their own lives doesn’t have a shape or precise destination either. In the case of Alice, her life borrows some symbolic resonancy from the theater play that she performs within the film, a stage adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead”. This is another complacent moment on the part of Desplechi, one which borrows something from literature and the arts. I like his more recent films, like his genre attempt in Roubaix, une lumière (2019), in which he includes characters that are atypical of his usual bourgeois milieu in the film. After all, the laments of the two protagonists from Brother and Sisters, exposed in their letters, which Desplechin set to film ever since the nineties by having his actors recite them facing the camera, give the whole drama a dominant tinge of self-pity. (It’s worth noting that while in the 1990s these letters the protagonists sent each other seemed like a tasteful, romantic-bourgeois gesture, thirty years later, they’re just bookish and old-fashioned-bourgeois.) The letter at the end is the one most marred by this self-pity. It is read against a backdrop of bright images, makes references to capital-H history, and contains in it the momentary, proud self-satisfaction of someone coming out of therapy who thinks he has got it right once and for all. By comparison, the neurosis that Desplechin allows to unfold in many of his other films is far more interesting.


Director/ Screenwriter






Alice and Louis are estranged siblings who have been avoiding each other for over twenty years and are forced to reunite after a tragedy.

Radu Toderici is a film critic and researcher. Lately he’s interested in the history of the Romanian cinema during socialism. He writes for Steaua literary magazine and is also a professor at the University of Theatre & Film Babes-Bolyai, from Cluj. He believes the recipe for a good life includes at least one and a half film a day.