Dir: Patrice Chereau. France. 2003. 89mins.
Patrice Chereau's bleak and uncompromising new film about terminal illness and fraternal love is one of the director's most austere and least commercial works to date. Intimacy, to be sure, was not an easy ride for audiences, but it had more focus and structure to its angry passion than His Brother. Still, those who stick with the film will be rewarded by some perceptive emotional insights and fine performances by Bruno Todeschini and Eric Caravaca in the lead roles. The film's prospects on the arthouse and festival circuit were bolstered at Berlin, where Chereau took the Silver Bear for best director. Its chances of adding screens to a small-to-middling roll-out in France, where Pyramide will distribute it, will depend to a large extent on whether critics rally round. Its prospects overseas look less certain.
The audience never really discovers what thirty-something brothers Thomas and Luc do for a living. Instead, the starting point for the fragmented storyline comes when a tearful, frightened Thomas announces to his younger brother Luc that he has a potentially fatal illness. From here on the daily routine is frozen and the two inhabit a suspended world, shuttling between hospitals, Luc's apartment and the brothers' family home somewhere on the coast. Thomas has a rare blood disease and is heterosexual; were it not for these two details, this would be a classics AIDs feature.
The camera - sometimes handheld, sometimes fixed - is pitiless, focussing on the minutiae of hospital life, from the plastic curtains to the blue-green tiles to the injections Thomas is subject to (anyone who can not stand the sight of blood should avoid this film). Painful to watch even without the blood, the fixed stare pays dividends in a long, uncut scene in which Thomas is shaved and washed in preparation for an operation; here, for once, it builds stubbornly into something elegaic, and moving.
The human body in health and illness is one focus of His Brother; another is the difficult relationship between these two siblings. Luc carries a burden of resentment towards his self-absorbed older brother, who has never properly acknowledged his younger sibling's homosexuality, and whose selfishness is only enhanced by his disease.
Relationships, as always with Chereau, never run smooth, and this one is no exception. But although the world portrayed here is certainly believable, it suffers from a lack of narrative structure. At first, the film's backward and forward leaps are labelled with the names of months, but this push for temporal logic is inexplicably abandoned halfway through. Perhaps the greatest misjudgement, though, is the sudden introduction of a Marianne Faithful song in a film which otherwise has no soundtrack. The audience has invested so much into the film's brutally frank gaze that this lapse into the sentimental feels like a betrayal.
Prod co: Azor Films
Co prod: Arte France, Love Streams
Fr dist: Pyramide
Int'l sales: Flach Pyramide
Prod: Joseph Strub
Scr: Patrice Chereau, Anne-Louise Trividic, from the novel of the same title by Philippe Besson
Cinematography: Eric Gautier
Ed: Francois Gedigier
Sound: Guillaume Sciama
Main cast: Bruno Todeschini, Eric Caravaca, Maurice Garrel, Nathalie Boutefeu