'DNA' ('ADN'): Film Review

Le Pacte
Unique and unruly.

French actress-director Maïwenn ('Polisse') premiered her latest Cannes-selected feature at the Deauville American Film Festival.

For her sixth feature film, French writer-director-actress Maïwenn (Polisse, Mon Roi) has definitely made one of her most introspective works yet.

I say introspective and not “autobiographical” — a term, which, per the press notes, is one that Maïwenn finds “reductive and inadequate.” And yet, the 44-year-old filmmaker is very much the beating heart of this latest family drama (or melodrama, which may be a more adequate term), both as the inspiration for the script (which she co-wrote with Mathieu Demy), the person playing the lead character and the director putting it all together in her own unruly and idiosyncratic way.

Indeed, DNA (ADN) is probably Maïwenn’s most Maïwenn-esque movie thus far, from the nonstop energy of the ensemble performances to the sudden shifts between laughter and tears, both delivered by the bucket, to the way all roads lead back to Maïwenn herself, including a final shot meant to reflect a major personal triumph.

Fans of her oeuvre will thus find much to love here, including terrific supporting turns from Louis Garrel (Little Women), veteran Fanny Ardent (8 Women) and the up-and-coming Dylan Robert, who was discovered in the 2018 Cannes film Sheherazade. But others may see Maïwenn’s navel-gazing histrionics as too much to handle, even if there seems to be a method to her madness.

Not unlike John Cassavetes, she has a knack for distilling the messiness of our lives on screen, using a half-dozen or more actors, often simultaneously, to channel her intentions through group scenes of people talking, shouting, crying and joking. At its best moments, DNA conveys that Cassavetes vibe with its many fits of well-performed controlled chaos; at its worst, it can play out like a 90-minute selfie.

The first half of the film is largely devoted to the final days, death and funeral of Emir Fellah (Omar Marwan), an Algerian patriarch who moved to France in the 1960s and, like many emigrants from North Africa, settled in the working-class suburbs of Paris.

We learn all of this through a family album that Neige (Maïwenn), Fellah’s most attached grandchild, has had put together by an author (Anne Berest) to both aid her Alzheimer’s-stricken grandfather’s failing memory and serve as testimonial for his many descendants.

It soon becomes evident that the album is more or less destined for Neige herself. In the wake of Emir’s demise, she grows increasingly obsessed with her Algerian roots, buying every single book and watching every single documentary on the subject, submitting to a 23andMe-style DNA test to see exactly what percentage of her genes stem from Fellah’s homeland, and eventually deciding to acquire Algerian citizenship.

She does all of this while going through what appears to be a deep depression and phase of anorexia, doubling down on her grief and unable to get back to normal life. (She has three children but they more or less disappear during the latter half of the film.)

Meanwhile, Neige’s extended family, itself an assortment of pandemonium and narcissism, is unable to agree on a single detail regarding Emir’s burial. From Neige’s mother Caroline (Fanny Ardant), with whom she has a longstanding feud, to her aunt (Caroline Chaniolleau), brothers (Florent Lacger, Henri-Noël Tabary) and eldest son Kevin (Robert), the mood when they get together feels a lot like the The Jerry Springer Show. All that’s missing is a scene where they start throwing chairs at each other.

Indeed, Emir had been the concrete holding everyone together, and he's left an emotional vaccum behind him -- one that remains unfilled by Neige's estranged father Pierre (theatre director Alain Françon, in an excelllent low-key turn), who has put considerable distance between himself and his former tribe. The only seemingly stable presence in Neige’s life is her long-time friend François (Garrel), whose ongoing comic asides help to lower the room temperature before it boils over.

The family sequences, however tumultuous, also reveal what Maïwenn can do best: tossing a bunch of actors together and coaxing intense and naturalistic turns out of them — a feat she pulled off extremely well in her Paris cop ensembler, Polisse. Highlights here include a hilarious scene of Neige and co. picking out a coffin, with Ardant and Chaniolleau exchanging nonstop barbs as they debate the merits of pinewood vs. cedar; the funeral scene itself, where Lacger’s character delivers a deadpan eulogy and Ardant once again explodes; and a surreal dinner scene with Pierre and his children that involves live snakes and saliva swabs — elements that Maïwenn incorporates without overdoing it.

But as DNA narrows in on Neige’s predicament at the exclusion of everyone else, it becomes harder to swallow. There are just a few two many scenes of Neige lying in the fetal position on the couch, wearing her dead grandpa’s pajamas and flanked by a pile of Algerian War studies. Not that Maïwenn doesn’t try to undercut the heaviness with flashes of humor thanks to Garrel’s François, who pops in to lighten the mood, or Neige’s sister Lilah (Marine Vacth), whose reaction to Emir’s death is one of cold, if caring, sobriety.

She also tries to reveal the sociopolitical undertones of Neige’s quest, which reflects that of so many North African families cut off from their roots when they moved to France in the post-colonial years. Neige desperately wants to feel Algerian, almost religiously so, even if we learn that Emir, a devout atheist who fought against the French during the war, wound up embracing his adopted homeland and even had a crush on Gallic politician Ségolène Royal. Such details are helpful, but they never reduce the sauce that Maïwenn lays on way too thickly at times, with Stephen Warbeck’s string-heavy score accompanying the waterworks.

The fact that this all results in a personal catharsis for Neige, and one that seems to come too easily despite the suffering she’s faced, ultimately feels like a cop-out, even if such a catharsis (again, per the press notes) was obviously convincing enough for Maïwenn herself. In a sense you have to take her word for it, just as you have to accept that in DNA, she’s the star around which the rest of the known universe revolves. Beyond her talent, which is clearly on display here, Maïwenn’s singular voice in French cinema begs another question, which is: How many of us want to hear it?

Production companies: Why Not Productions, Arte France Cinéma  
Cast: Maïwenn, Fanny Ardant, Louis Garrel, Dylan Robert, Marine Vacth, Caroline Chaniolleau, Alain Françon, Florent Lacger, Henri-Noël Tabary, Omar Marwan 
Director: Maïwenn
Screenwriters: Maïwenn, Mathieu Demy
Executive producers: Mélissa Malinbaum, Martine Cassinelli
Directors of photography: Sylvestre Dedise, Benjamin Groussain
Production designer: Angelo Zamparutti
Editor: Laure Gardette
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Casting director: Julie Allione
Venue: Deauville American Film Festival
Sales: Wild Bunch 

In French
90 minutes