Despite all her evident idiosyncrasies, there’s something familiar about Sophia (Anne Élisabeth Bossé), the focus of Quebecois debutante Monia Chokri’s comedy “A Brother’s Love,” which gets the Un Certain Regard sidebar of Cannes off to a springy if overlong and somewhat stumbling start. Sophia may have a PhD in political philosophy (and the $48,000 college tuition debt to prove it) but she lives a remarkably unexamined life. And in that she is enabled by a co-dependent relationship with her attractive psychologist brother Karim (Patrick Hivon) which traps them both in an eternally arrested state of emotional adolescence. The familiarity springs from a realisation that the male version of Sophia’s character is such a common staple of the modern comedy as to be nearly a cliché: the lovable manchild whose emotional immaturity is actually part of his charm.
These traits distilled into a woman by Chokri’s promising if overindulgent screenplay and Bossé’s admirably uncompromised performance, make for a pleasingly unlikely and often unlikable heroine: an overeducated, underskilled, abrasive young woman who, at least initially, is not too worried whose feathers she ruffles as long as she has the safety blanket of her brother’s unconditional affection and attention to nestle back into. Beneath the film’s soapier turns, and despite its more strident moments, there is a small dose of bittersweet wisdom here about the dangers inherent in entrusting one person — whomever it might be — with sole custody of your self-worth.
Chokri is also an actress, best known internationally for her collaborations with Xavier Dolan in “Heartbeats” and “Laurence Anyways” and there is more than a little overlap in their approaches, for better and worse. At times there’s an ebullient freedom to Chokri’s filmmaking that recalls Dolan at his most fleet-footed and experimental: There are jump-cuts and repetitions in the edits, off-kilter angles and punchy close-ups in DP Joseé Deshaies’ saturated, bright cinematography and a great, often counter-intuitive use of surprising soundtrack cuts (Petula Clark’s French-language version of the Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man” is a special treat, as is the gonzo but weirdly evocative use of ’70s-style romantic trilling flutes over some of the scenes of sibling togetherness). But there are also headachey, borderline cacophonous argument sequences, gratuitous party scenes, and random side characters that do little but add length and complication to what is really a relatively straightforward story about a thirtysomething woman finally growing the hell up.
Sophia’s prompt to do so comes when Karim begins a serious relationship with the beautiful, near-saintly Éloïse, played by fellow Dolan alum Evelyne Brochu (“Tom at the Farm,” TV’s “Orphan Black”). Éloïse, who is actually Sophia’s doctor and who first bonds with Karim on the occasion of Sophia’s abortion (dealt with in a refreshingly no-big-deal way by Chokri), in turn introduces Sophia to male midwife Jasmin (Mani Soleymanlou), and an extremely awkward and reluctant relationship eventually blossoms there too.
There are truly funny sequences that seem illuminated by personal experience, when the sibling relationship of roughhousing and riddle-posing takes center stage, or around the dinner table with Sophia’s divorced though not estranged parents, delightfully played by Micheline Bernard and a live-wire Sasson Gabai. But there are also unnecessary narrative detours: A subplot about a young woman to whom Sophia is hinted to be attracted is at best a narrative oxbow lake cut off from the main flow of the action, and at worst a rather cruel invention designed purely to jolt Sophia awake from her psychological slumber. Similarly questionable is the slightly cavalier use of a classroom of immigrants to teach Sophia a hasty lesson in priorities and privilege.
Indeed, when all of the obstacles to her happiness are of the heroine’s own devising, it’s rather obvious what has to happen for the inevitable resolution to occur: She needs to take responsibility for herself, learn a few harsh truths, and apologize to the people who deserve it. Once this trajectory is set, all we’re really doing is waiting for her to complete it. The problem is, we wait too long, as this episodic tale spins through a few too many episodes on its way to a somewhat easy, and oddly enigmatic finale, which doesn’t feel quite earned considering the earthiness of what has gone before.
But then, the absence of polish is part of the film’s charm, and narrative overreach and a slight over-reliance on Kim Kardashian as a punchline to all of Sophia’s insecurities about herself are easily forgivable flaws, given the times Chokri swings for the fences and connects. This kind of joy in filmmaking can’t be faked, and though “A Brother’s Love” may lose its way almost as often as its wayward protagonist, it never takes itself too seriously, and convinces us that for Chokri, like with Sophia, however rocky the road to here, the future will only get brighter.
Cannes Film Review: 'A Brother's Love'
Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 15, 2019. Running time: 117 MIN. (Original title: “La Femme de mon Frère”)
Production:(Canada) A Les Films Seville (in Canada), Memento Films (in France) presentation of a Meta Films production in association with Telefilm Canada. (Int’l sales: Seville Int’l, Montreal.) Producers: Nancy Grant, Sylvain Corbeil. Executive producers: Michel Merkt, Monia Chokri.
Crew:Director, writer: Monia Chokri. Camera (color, widescreen): Joseé Deshaies. Editors: Monia Chokri, Justine Gauthier. Music: Olivier Alary.
With:Anne-Élisabeth Bossé, Patrick Hivon, Sasson Gabai, Evelyne Brochu, Mani Soleymanlou, Micheline Bernard, Magalie Lépine Blondeau, Niels Schneider, Noah Parker, Amélie Dallaire, Marie Brassard, Paul Savoie, Maurice De Kinder, Kimberly Laferrière, Mylène Mackay, Joëlle Paré-Beaulieu, Jocelyne Zucco, Carmen Sylvestre. (French dialogue)
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