A thirtysomething’s platonic love for her brother knows no bounds, which puts her in an awkward position when he finally starts dating the near-perfect girl in A Brother’s Love (La femme de mon frere). Though it might sound like a pitch for a high-concept studio comedy starring Amy Schumer, this is actually the basic plot outline of the sweet, funny and somewhat melancholy feature debut from Quebec actress-turned-director Monia Chokri (of Xavier Dolan’s Heartbeats and local zombie hit Ravenous).
While there might be no belly laughs or gross-out gags, this rather meandering opening film of the Un Certain Regard section in Cannes should nonetheless be a welcome item in Francophone theaters and in niche engagements further afield and at festivals. The fact that this promising debut was produced by Nancy Grant, who also produces Dolan’s films, can only help.
The dark-haired, open-faced Sophia (Anne-Elisabeth Bosse, also of Heartbeats) might be 35, but she hasn’t really done all that much in the professional arena, having opted for more specialized studies in philosophy after graduating from university. In a stunning shot that concludes the opening sequence, we see her close the monumental doors of a Montreal-based institution of higher learning where she applied for a job but then got rejected. On the steps in front of the doors, her entire future seems to fly away, as suggested by the arrival of a sudden snowstorm and heavy winds, which sweep up all the papers in her hands as a classical Bach piece roars on the soundtrack. The sudden adverse weather literally creates a whirlwind of snow and baby-blue and pink sheets of paper, and the audiovisual spectacle is worthy of a film by Dolan (in whose Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways Chokri got her big break as an actress).
Until she can find a job and sort out her life, ex-student Sophia crashes at the apartment of her older sibling, Karim (Patrick Hivon), a casually confident man whose bond with his sister is clearly very strong. An early sequence in which they visit their parents, who live in a suburb an hour away, suggests volumes about the complex family dynamics of the boisterous clan. Their mother (Micheline Bernard) and immigrant father (Sasson Gabai, The Band’s Visit) are divorced, but they still banter like an old married couple. And Dad doesn’t live all that far away, as he’s turned a shed in the garden into a makeshift home. This peculiar bond — of being neither together nor completely separated, of having a shared past but also having to adjust to a new status quo going forward — in many ways foreshadows the complexity of Sophia’s relationship with Karim as it will develop over the course of the film.
The agent of change for the siblings is the blond and angelic Eloise (Evelyne Brochu, of Dolan’s Tom at the Farm and David Cronenberg’s The Nest), who works at an abortion clinic. It is there that she meets Sophia, who is accompanied by Karim for moral support. The procedure isn’t shown, but is suggested through a shockingly direct sound cue.
But Eloise proceeds to remove something else from Sophia, too: Karim. The initial courtship between the two lovebirds puts the largely floating protagonist ill at ease. Of course, the medical professional who helped you get an abortion isn’t necessarily the person you’d like to meet in the kitchen before you have had your morning coffee and after she has had her way with your brother. But that’s not the real problem; quite logically, Eloise slowly starts to replace Sophia in Karim’s life, which is only normal when she morphs from a fling into a more serious girlfriend.
Sophia also sees women with babies and/or jobs everywhere, while she not only has neither but also feels her best buddy slipping away. She’s in that weird situation where she’s “overqualified for most jobs, yet has zero experience in any job,” and Chokri paints a very convincing picture of a neurotic young woman who is in a kind of no man’s land in terms of where she finds herself: done studying but without a job, without a boyfriend and — increasingly — without a family.
The neat foreshadowing, parallels and themes laid out above might suggest a sleek, precision-tooled narrative, but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Chokri, who also wrote the screenplay, frequently stays close to Sophia’s blinkered point-of-view, and it is clear the latter is neither ready nor willing to see the bigger picture. One early evening, she could be slurping beer from a straw while skating on ice alone with her brother, and the next night he might invite her along for a double date with Eloise and an emotional male midwife (scene stealer Mani Soleymanlou) who is about as right for Sophia as bikinis are for Montreal midwinter outings. These sudden adjustments back and forth are not only hard to process for Sophia but they also — very much intentionally — give the film an ambling, mercurial quality that makes things feel somewhat unfocused, even if the underlying structure is always sound.
Though the story is about a woman looking for new bearings in her life, basically against her wishes, the overall tone is never outright depressing. The family meals verge on the burlesque, while other moments are more charmingly melancholy. This is due to not only the beautifully modulated performances, with Bosse, Hivon and Brochu all perfectly cast in their roles, but also to some nifty technical details. Chokri and co-editor Justine Gauthier, for example, fade to pastel colors instead of black between scenes, and some of cinematographer Josee Deshaies’ setups — all in gorgeous 16mm — underline the loopy quality of what’s happening, like when she films a spat over dinner from underneath the glass table and the lifeless head of a salmon becomes a silent witness to the heated conversations.
Not everything is always clearly legible, including the enigmatic if idyllic closing sequence. Set on a pond in summer, this scene certainly looks pretty, but it is harder to gauge what exactly it is trying to say or whether it is just meant as a kind of poetic, summery bookend to mirror the wintry opening scene. That said, A Brother’s Love certainly does confirm Chokri as a directorial talent to watch with something to say.
Production company: Metafilms
Cast: Anne-Elisabeth Bosse, Patrick Hivon, Evelyne Brochu, Sasson Gabai, Micheline Bernard, Mani Soleymanlou, Magali Lepine-Blondeau
Writer-director: Monia Chokri
Producers: Nancy Grant, Sylvain Corbeil
Executive producers: Michel Merkt, Monia Chokri
Director of photography: Josee Deshaies
Production designer: Eric Barbeau
Costume designer: Patricia McNeal
Editors: Monia Chokri, Justine Gauthier
Music: Olivier Alary
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard — opening film)
Sales: Seville International
In Quebec French