The Sisters Brothers

Stories that are based around a character or characters undertaking a long journey – often two people who are bound together by circumstance, or a sense of duty, or family ties, etc – are ten-a-penny in cinema, and especially so within the western genre. Such a time-worn set-up applies to Jacques Audiard’s latest, a revisionist oater in which antiheroes Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly on very good form) and his younger sibling Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are employed as henchmen by a wealthy figure known as The Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a minor, non-speaking role). Charged with tracking down a gold prospector by the name of Hermann Kermit Warm, the two brothers bicker and endure – rather than enjoy – each other’s company, making their way from town to town, heading from Oregon into California. Along the way, the calmer, more contemplative Eli contemplates a change of direction in life, while the impetuous Charlie remains utterly wrapped up in the moment, largely incapable of seeing beyond the next saloon brawl; cinema conditioning dictates that we instantly expect them both to undergo some kind of change during their journey south.

If the outline sounds familiar, there are specific elements of the film that ensure it stands out from the litany of other works that combine the figurative inner journeys of characters with physically-demanding slogs across land, not least the ever-shifting tone and mood of the piece. These changes echo those of Patrick DeWitt’s source novel, a work that wrong-foots the reader by skipping between, say, brutal violence and sardonic humour, often in the space of the same paragraph. Very early on in the film it’s clear that the audience – like the brothers – is in for an uneasy ride: one minute you’re watching a shoot-out, the next a gruesome slice of body horror, then lighter, knockabout comedy (with Phoenix even offering touches of slapstick), and finally, in its most intriguing state, The Sisters Brothers morphs into a meditative, almost dreamlike study of the ties that bind.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in The Sisters Brothers

In addition, there is a lot of elliptical storytelling (a device that all-too-often sounds the death knell in terms of a movie’s box office performance, and perhaps contributed to this film’s status as a financial flop). The plot is never unduly complicated and the story is always easy to follow, but occasionally the viewer is required to do a little work and fill in the gaps. For example, some gunfights involving the brothers end abruptly, mid-shootout, and Audiard might cut to a scene showing the pair farther on down the line, where more conventional films would clearly establish that every adversary has been downed before doing so. A grizzly bear attack – something that became the most memorable moment in The Revenant – is dealt with in a similar fashion, with one of the characters simply waking from a deep slumber to find a defeated, dead bear slumped in the camp; we don’t see any of the struggle that ensued, or get to experience any of the tension that would undoubtedly have been caused by the animal’s appearance.

That’s not to say Audiard’s film is light on excitement or action, but it’s very much a secondary concern, any near-death experiences being business-as-usual for these experienced hired killers. The director is far more interested in the changing relationships between Eli and Charlie and, in a subplot that eventually merges with the main strand, the tentatively homoerotic union between Riz Ahmed’s Warm and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morris, the latter another of The Commodore’s hired guns (and one whose highfalutin ways constantly anger Charlie Sisters).

Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed

At its best the film recalls the woozy, spiritual style of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and there were enough of these passages to leave me thinking that The Sisters Brothers will be very warmly regarded as time passes, perhaps one day seen as a cult concern (if indeed it isn’t already; such things seem to be enshrined pretty quickly in the 21st century). The pared-down score by celebrated composer Alexandre Desplat certainly enhances the overall sense of oddness, sounding like a choppy, jerky reworking of something that might have begun life as a ‘classic’ western theme. Benoît Debie’s impressive digital cinematography, meanwhile, features some crisp interior low-light work and stunning landscape photography, even if Audiard seems wholly uninterested in lingering over the beautiful mountain vistas and plains for too long; an American director or cinematographer might have been more tempted to romanticise the land and slot in with the history of the genre by shooting on film and leaving certain views up on the screen for a few extra seconds. The Frenchman and his Belgian DoP seem less interested in such convention.

With all that in mind, as well as the generally poor box office showings of other modern westerns, it’s hardly a surprise that this failed to find a large audience upon release, but as long as you’re not the one taking the financial hit or hoping for a long and successful career in Hollywood (as Audiard may have been) that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As The Sisters Brothers peters out with a gently reverberating coda – eschewing an obvious stopping point or uplifting ending – it becomes clear that this is one that has been made for the few, rather than the many. It also strikes me that Reilly, had he been acting in another era, would have played dozens of roles in the western genre. (****)

0542 | Dheepan

Jacques Audiard’s latest caused a stir in 2015 when it won the Palme d’Or, with a number of critics suggesting the award should have gone to a more deserving film, Son Of Saul and The Assassin being the ones championed loudest. Dheepan‘s arrival on these shores has been met with general appreciation, though, even if many amateur and professional critics seem to have found the ending problematic. But that’s the ending, and I probably ought to begin at the beginning. This is Audiard’s eighth film as director, and the first since 2012’s Rust And Bone. It’s the story of a Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger (the Dheepan of the title, played by novelist Antonythasan Jesuthasan, a former child soldier himself) who must flee his country when he ends up on the losing side at the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War. The single Dheepan intends to move to France, but in order to seek political asylum he needs to have a family, so he is paired with a fake wife named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who wants to live with her cousin in England, and a nine-year-old girl named Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), who Yalini finds and coerces into making the journey to Europe. This is revealed during a brief prologue, largely set within a refugee camp; afterwards, once the director move the action to the suburbs of Paris, Sri Lanka and the characters’ memories of life there ripple through Audiard’s film. The main character has dreams that feature an elephant partially-covered by leaves and he – and others – involved in the war are clearly haunted by what they have seen.

Dheepan serves as an interesting study of the trials faced by migrant families when moving to a new country. Many French films of recent years have taken on the subject, such as Philippe Lioret’s Welcome and Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, while two of Audiard’s recent works – the magnificent A Prophet and 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped – have also concerned themselves with the experiences of ethnic minority characters within modern France. Both of those films are also about small scale criminal enterprises, so it’s no surprise when we discover that the tower block Dheepan and his new surrogate family move into is directly opposite and adjacent to blocks that are controlled by drug gangs. ‘They have gangs here, too?’ inquires Yalini, surprised. ‘Yes…but not as bad as ours’ is Dheepan’s reply. The dealers actually seem to co-exist with the wary, non-criminal residents amicably enough, even if their constant presence on rooftops and outside entrances is threatening and their nighttime noise is a nuisance, but eventually and inevitably violent incidents begin to break out. Initially Dheepan – who is employed as a caretaker for the blocks – manages to keep a safe distance; gradually, however, he seems drawn to the gang and the trouble that surrounds them like a moth to a flame (sitting nearby when there’s no need to, making idle chit chat with gang members, etc.). The link is furthered when Yalini takes a cooking and cleaning job, working for the uncle of an ex-con gang leader (Vincent Rottiers), who she slowly becomes fascinated by.

Kalieaswari Srinivasan in Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan

There’s actually a very pleasing balance here as Audiard weaves the plot thread about Dheepan, Yalini and the gang together with scenes that deal with the process of immigration and settling, as well as broader and briefer examinations of racism and cultural identity within a minority community (the residents of their estate are presumably first, second and third generation French Muslims for the most part, and there’s an amusing line here in which Dheepan innocently suggests that his new wife should wear a veil to fit in with French people around them, which she dismisses curtly). Some of Dheepan‘s most fascinating passages track the development of the three Sri Lankan characters as they come to terms with the new country and, at the same time, one another; they begin as strangers who barely speak a word of French between them but gradually Audiard presents them as a ‘normal’ family unit, who make acquainances within the local area and the wider Sri Lankan community. The film is at its best as a kitchen sink drama examinign the relationships within the family, and it’s during these scenes that we see the bond between Yalini and Dheepan grow, as well as the development of Dheepan’s paternal instincts. Illayaal’s experiences at school also feature prominently: as the new girl she struggles to make friends and is placed in a special learning class to get her language skills up to speed; yet despite everything she has been through she blossoms at school and later, when we see her doing homework in the lounge with her surrogate father, it looks as if the child is teaching the adult, rather than vice versa.

Then we hit that ending, which is Audiard’s vaguely hallucinatory, grim take on Death Wish, Harry Brown, Taxi Driver or countless genre films that depict brutal acts of vigilantism (I even thought that Dheepan‘s odd coda, set in a middle-class suburban England of bright sunshine and barbecue get-togethers, contains an implied and vaguely-comical nod to Scorsese’s celebrated mid-70s work). To his credit the director spends a while building up to the explosion of violence that takes place during the final act, presumably to try and avoid criticism of drastic tonal shifts, but even so the action that transpires feels extreme given everything that has gone before, though not completely out of character for those involved. (Perhaps it feels unharmonious simply because Dheepan succeeds so well as a drama that investigates the migrant experience.) There are attempts to foreshadow Dheepan’s actions during the final act, principally by suggesting that the PTSD-suffering former soldier shares characteristics with the elephant we occasionally glimpse: generally placid, but also extremely dangerous, and ready to charge. At different times we see Dheepan wearing the flourescent Disney-style mouse ears that he hawked around Montmartre when he first moved to Paris, which could be construed as a subtle visual link to the bigger animal, and it’s at least indicative of Dheepan’s state of mind when he enters France.

In all honesty the ending didn’t ruin the film for me, even though I initially felt it was a misjudgment as I left the cinema. For the most part this is an impressive piece of work, with fine performances from the three Sri Lankan cast members. Eponine Momenceau’s photography mixes wide shots of the banlieues with handheld cameras within its corridors, rooms and stairwells, while she has an impressive, deliberately rough-looking style of framing that I quite like, occasionally using foreground objects and walls to partly obscure the faces of the characters. Nicolas Jaar’s score, meanwhile, is atmospheric, and it changes to complement the shifts in Audiard’s material successfully. Pretty good, even if it doesn’t quite match the heights of the director’s best work.

Directed by: Jacques Audiard.
Written by: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré.
Starring: Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Mark Zinga.
Cinematography: Eponine Momenceau.
Editing: Juliette Welfling.
Music: Nicolas Jaar.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 112 minutes.
Year: 2016.

0094 | De Rouille Et D’Os (Rust And Bone)

De Rouille Et D’os (Rust And Bone in English) is the latest film by director Jacques Audiard, his first since 2009’s magnificent Un Prophète (A Prophet), which just happens to be one of my two favourite films from the past five years (the other being Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, since you asked). I feel slightly bad for only getting around to watching De Rouille Et D’os recently; I enjoyed Audiard’s previous two films a lot (2005’s De Battre Mon Cœur S’est Arrêté – The Beat That My Heart Skipped being the other), and I think he is a director who deserves the utmost attention.

Based on Craig Davidson’s short story collection Rust And Bone, the movie largely revolves around an unemployed Belgian named Ali (Matthias Schoenarts) with vast experience of illegal street fighting and his five-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure). We first see the pair as they travel to Antibes in the south of France to stay with Ali’s sister Anna (Corinne Masiero), and shortly thereafter Ali starts work in the town as a nightclub bouncer.

One evening Ali breaks up a fight involving Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), and subsequently he gives her his phone number after driving her home. Stéphanie works as a killer whale trainer at a local marine tourist park, and in a display of bravura Audiard shows a terrible accident which befalls her in the middle of a whale acrobatics show. After losing both of her legs, she suffers badly from depression as she attempts to come to terms with her disability, and calls Ali, from whom she receives moral support. Stéphanie becomes mentally and physically stronger as a result, and eventually gets artificial limbs to aid her mobility.

Over time the pair become closer, although Ali also sleeps with other women and is open with Stéphanie about his actions. While their relationship tentatively stumbles along, he re-enters the world of street fighting, and Stéphanie finds herself drawn to the violence that surrounds the sport. Before long she ends up as a de facto manager, handling Ali’s bets for the fights he takes part in.

The violent street fighting world appears to be a place of solace, oddly, where both characters are able to release their pent-up emotion and aggression. Ali is addicted to the energetic highs he gets from fighting, whereas Stéphanie is easily seduced by the toughness of the scene and the characters that it attracts. It is here that their mutual admiration flourishes.

Though the romance between the two forms the main subject matter of the film, ample screen time is given to Ali’s relationship with Sam, and particularly the way he struggles to keep his violent side hidden from his young son. The film also explores Ali’s less interesting clashes with exasperated sister Anna, which come to a head when Anna gets sacked for stealing out of date food, something which she blames Ali for in a rather convoluted way.

Audiard fills his film with scenes of great visual interest; lens flare is constantly included (perhaps too much – it starts to look like 1980s MTV after a while), and the color palette features azure and the deep yellow of the sun heavily. These colours are somewhat obvious given the location of Antibes, an upmarket town on the Côte d’Azur, but they jar with the subject matter at times; it’s interesting to consider that the backstreet fights take place under the same glare of the sun that attracts the rich and famous to the town’s seafront.

The scene depicting Stéphanie’s accident in particular is deftly handled, with the whale show turning from a typical tourist-pleasing performance to a fragmented, soundless nightmare with a variety of fast cuts, unusual camera angles and underwater footage, all of which helps to create a sense of dislocation just prior to her terrible fate. (Brilliantly, the first time we see Stéphanie all we can make out through a crowd of people are her legs on the floor after the nightclub fight. Therefore when Ali meets her for the first time she is already struggling to walk; blood on her legs also foreshadows what is to come.)

Stéphanie’s character arc is an extremely interesting one to follow, ably illuminated by Marion Cotillard’s excellent performance. Her romance with Ali may be unusual, but it feels believable, as do the tender and coy sex scenes that take place after her legs are amputated. There are some scenes featuring Stéphanie that echo Hollywood at its cheesiest, though: when she dances to music in her wheelchair, for example, it’s hard not to cringe. Later on a montage soundtracked by Katy Perry’s Firework* shows Stéphanie commanding whales to jump out of the water once again, only this time while wearing prosthetic legs; This is the song that is playing when Stéphanie is injured, so the choice was made for a reason, but it doesn’t quite come off as a subversive moment or an effective pastiche of uplifting feelgood movies. These are merely slight imperfections, and there’s nothing too damaging about a wrong choice or two; moments like these do not ruin De Rouille Et D’os, but they do serve as a reminder that not everything Audiard touches turns to gold.

Schoenarts is very good as the complicated fighter Ali (nice choice of name), a man who struggles to express his feelings verbally to close family members but who clearly cares for his son and strives to provide him with a decent upbringing. His scenes with Cotillard are very strong, and so it is frustrating that Audiard concentrates a little too much on one or two sub-plots. The love story that is central to De Rouille Et D’os is a strong one, and there’s actually no need to detour away from telling it. The way that Stéphanie drifts out of the story a little near the end is also disappointing, given that her story is every bit as interesting as Ali’s. Perhaps more so.

Perhaps expectation was too high, and perhaps I am being a little harsh. It was extremely unlikely that Audiard would match the quality of his previous offering, but some praise must still be given for the director’s latest effort. De Rouille Et D’os is a strong drama, with a pair of excellent lead performances, and some real standout moments that take you by surprise (the accident scene being the best example). There have been a few quirky romantic films I have enjoyed in recent years, but there are very few straightly-played romantic dramas that I would say I really admire. This is one of the better efforts that I have seen. At times I thought I was watching a great film, but there are a few mis-steps that mean my enthusiasm is tempered a little.

The Basics:

Directed by: Jacques Audiard
Written by: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, Craig Davidson
Starring: Matthias Schoenarts, Marion Cotillard, Armand Verdure
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 120 minutes
Year: 2012