Cannes 2022: Brother and Sister, Pamfir, R.M.N.
Arnaud Desplechin’s Brother and Sister ended to the audible reception of somewhere around seven boos, two derisive whistles and nothing else; if you’re someone who believes indifference is a worse reaction than active hostility, this somehow seemed to split the worst possible difference. Consensus holds, not inaccurately, that Desplechin’s peak work is, at least for now, behind him, with the arguable exception of My Golden Days—non-coincidentally, a prequel to 1996’s My Sex Life. His experiments outside of erratic interpersonal dramas, like 2011’s self-explanatorily titled Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian and 2019’s crime drama Oh Mercy!, have been received with tepid bewilderment. I have more sympathy for these than most and, while I’d never actively recommend Brother and Sister to anyone, and certainly not to anyone who’s never seen a Desplechin film, there’s a certain easy listening pleasure here (which fits for a movie that deploys Al Stewart’s “Timeless Skies” twice).
Granted, “that was pleasant” is maybe not the desired reaction to another of Desplechin’s examinations of infinite family rancor, a preoccupation established in his first film, 1991’s La Vie des Morts (streaming this week on Le Cinéma Club). This is very much an auteurist remix of trademark elements like outrageously hostile outbursts, frequently splenetically delivered by Mathieu Amalric; here, the brunt of them fall to titular brother Louis (Melvil Poupaud), who occasionally barks out things like (to a child!) “Stop smiling! Nice people are bland!” (The Desplechin artistic credo, really.) Louis’s sister Alice (Marion Cotillard) is an actress, which plays on Desplechin’s longstanding interest in theatrical performance examined in 2000’s Esther Kahn and and 2003’s Playing ‘In the Company of Men,’ partially constructed from stage rehearsals. Both are members of the Vuillard family, introduced in A Christmas Tale and revisited in Ismael’s Ghosts, the setting—like in the former and Oh, Mercy!—is once again primarily Desplechin’s hometown of Roubaix and the subject, unsurprisingly given precedent, is the siblings’ comically super-sized hatred. The most recently introduced recurring element of his work is the weirdest, a penchant for closing-minute location resets that require intercontinental travel: My Golden Years ended with unexpected jaunts to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, while this film ends by shipping Alice off to Africa for roughly two minutes of footage. It’s very funny that, according to the credits, getting this required traveling to both Senegal and Benin, though it probably goes without saying that the optics of a French movie that ends by blithely sending a white character to post-colonial Africa for the sole purpose of personal renewal are not great. I admit to enjoying these moves for their sheer, disproportionate expenditure-to-screentime ratio.
At the film’s beginning, we learn that novelist Louis has, not for the first time, written a novel smearing his sister, using her real name, no less; this is a subject that Desplechin presumably has feelings about, since he was sued by ex-girlfriend Marianne Denicourt for dramatizing elements of her life in 2004’s Kings and Queen and then anatomized as the evil genius “Arnold Duplancher” in her subsequent novel. When Louis and Alice’s parents are involved in a near-fatal car accident, the two are forced into proximity for the first time in years, taking alternating shifts avoiding each other at their hospital bedsides—if and how they’ll reconcile is the film’s main throughline. The characters share names with past incarnations of the Vuillaurds and their satellites—e.g., in A Christmas Tale, Poupaud was Ivan; here, his Louis is married to Faunia (Golshifteh Farahani), the character name of Amalric’s wife in that film. This family tree no longer makes any sense, which doesn’t particularly bother me; like one of his artistic heroes, Philip Roth, Desplechin keeps finding new names and angles for the same preoccupations, and it’d be dumb to complain that he doesn’t care about coherent worldbuilding, because this is definitely not a Marvel enterprise.
Given all this familiarity, what are the degrees of difference leading to such indifferent reception? Desplechin’s work up through Christmas Tale operated in a hyper-jittery register—excitable handheld camerawork, jagged editing, screaming matches and mental breakdowns on the manic-depressive spectrum. For a while now, his work has veered closer to “classicism”: in its early going, the film is virtually music-free and almost placid in its staging and editing. The expected, conspicuously eclectic soundtrack cues do eventually come (KRS-One and Destroyer, cheek by jowl), with fractious exchanges underpinned by a typical excess of alcohol (eminently characteristic exchange: “You seem bored.” “No, I’m drinking”), literary allusions and the specter of possible mental illness. (Desplechin’s other credit this year is as a director on season two of France’s version of In Therapy.) What’s throwing people off, I presume, is the counter-intuitive coziness and decided lack of urgency of this return to the familiar. Maybe the grin on Marion Cotillard’s face whenever she’s about to say something especially wounding, a familiar contradiction in the performances of Desplechin’s regular performer Emmauelle Devos, best captures the paradoxical tone. As ungalvanizing as it is, I’ve been watching Desplechin’s work in more or less real time for 20 years, and I can’t deny the comfort of another round.
Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s feature debut, Pamfir, operates in a familiar slow cinema idiom from the get-go. Returning from working abroad in Poland, titular father Leonid (Oleksandr Yatsentyuk) returns to his loving wife Olena (Solomiya Kyrylova) and son Nazar (Stanislav Potiak). Once a smuggler, Leonid (his nickname is the film’s title) is quickly compelled by events to resume that activity as a one-off, recruiting brother Victor (Ivan Sharan) and his dumb-brick godchildren for that proverbial One Final Run to pay off a substantial debt. Things, naturally, do not go as planned, and the film quickly trends towards tragedy, punctuated by sporadic acts of violence.
Pamfir’s film’s visuals (seem to) owe a lot to Miklós Jancsó, as Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk and DP Nikita Kuzmenko immediately prove adept at variations of his characteristic slow circular pans of the countryside, deploying bicycles and (under various narrative pretexts) lots of colored smoke to mark the landscape. (Kuzmenko’s shot a number of high-level music videos, notably for Cardi B, which checks out with with the super-saturated tableaus.) Pamfir’s pace, however, is weirdly, bumpily accelerated, its story playing at 1.5x the expected speed, and I found myself mostly nonplussed by its rush towards violence; an early confrontation between Leonid and a dozen-ish goons briefly suggests the potential to turn towards a “Crazy 88” scenario, but the film’s goals are more grimly high-minded. Showing sadism isn’t, in and of itself, an act of sadism, but there’s something programmatically unpleasant here that doesn’t synthesize into something greater than its beautiful form/ugly content dialectic. I’m filing this under “one to watch,” given Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s objectively skillful, occasionally surprising command of this familiar idiom, and in any case my audience loved it. This grim state-of-the-Ukranian-nation portrait is obviously well-timed, and the thundering percussion of its end credits electronica provided a nice beat for the standing ovation crowd to clap along to.
Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N.,, conveniently for me, is also a study of a father coming home from a stint working abroad for economic reasons only to have all hell break loose. Matthias (Marin Gregoire) is introduced working in a German sheep-slaughtering factory; when a factory supervisor curses him as a “lazy Gypsy,” Matthias promptly headbutts him and hits the road back to his Transylvania hometown. Everyone’s left home to find work elsewhere, which we know because the characters keep saying that, and Matthias’s bakery manager ex-girlfriend Csilla (Judith State) has been forced to recruit foreign laborers for minimum wage positions. Her hiring of two Sri Lankan employees (Gihan Edirisinghe and Amitha Jayasinghe) immediately triggers virulent racist pushback from the townsfolk, first in the form of (naturally) a vile Facebook group. Because Mungiu is a filmmaker who’s incapable of not staying terminally on-message, a seeming digression—Csilla having a nice holiday dinner with her new hires—is punctuated by a half-assed Molotov cocktail thrown through the window; the person next to me jumped, but to me this development was clearly inevitable.
R.M.N. is pointedly set during Christmas season, 2019, which for a while I thought was an evasion of the obligation to otherwise incorporate COVID masking et al. (something filmmakers are still understandably reluctant to do, although at some point we’ll all have to suck it up). But Mungiu has a larger purpose here: one of the more faux-eloquent bigots is a doctor who argues that the Sri Lankans, and Asians in general, have a “different viral pathology,” foreshadowing pandemic racisms to come. The film’s metaphors are extremely on-the-nose: the title is the Romanian abbreviation for a process that scans the brain, and knowing this it’s easier to understand that a subplot about Matthias’s dad suffering from an unknown brain injury is a metaphor for The Internalized Bigotries That’ll Kill Romania. But R.M.N. is a little looser than usual for Mungiu, who hilariously assigns Csilla an obsession with repeatedly listening to “Yumeji’s Theme” from In the Mood For Love and trying to teach herself how to play it on cello while drinking red wine in her nice house (very “aesthetic,” in a Buzzfeed Lifestyles kind of way). All this builds to a trademark long take, a la the botched “exorcism” in Beyond the Hills, of a town hall meeting where, in extreme wide shot, mostly racist residents and a few dissenters argue about whether to expel the foreigners. Mungiu helpfully notes in the press kit that this shot is 17 minutes long and contains 26 speaking parts; if the effect is the seamless simulation of racism, which is not exactly hard to find in the real world, I was still exactly as impressed as intended.