This article appeared in the May 26, 2022, Cannes Film Festival special edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our coverage of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival here.

(Brother and Sister, Arnaud Desplechin, 2022)

The most beloved films by Arnaud Desplechin—in particular his mid-to-late-aughts masterworks Kings & Queen and A Christmas Tale—are full-course meals: delightfully rich, flavorful, and multilayered experiences that feel like they’re serving up three or four movies in one. Over the past decade, however, the French director’s output has largely alternated between smaller-budget, tightly focused projects such as 2013’s psychoanalysis drama Jimmy P. and last year’s Philip Roth adaptation Deception, and rangy, supplemental explorations (My Golden Days, Ismael’s Ghosts) of the mythically tinged themes and characters of his foundational works. In his latest film, Brother and Sister, these two strands achieve an energetic synthesis, combining the philosophically inquisitive, fancifully imaginative spirit of the latter with the dialed-in, fervent focus of the former. The result is at once Desplechin’s sharpest and most expansive achievement in years.

Once again set in the filmmaker’s real-life hometown of Roubaix in northern France and centered around the fictional Vuillard family, iterations of which also appear in Kings & Queen and A Christmas Tale, Brother and Sister revisits the monstrously petty feud among the siblings at the core of Tale. Here, the conflict (though dealing with ostensibly different characters) is inflated to giddily ridiculous proportions in order to sound the depths of a family hatred whose source has long since been forgotten. As the estranged Alice (a theater actress) and Louis (a writer), the volcanic pair of Marion Cotillard and Melvil Poupaud engage each other in an escalating emotional arms race after the hospitalization of their parents in a freak accident. Around them, Desplechin arrays a pitch-perfect ensemble of performers, including Golshifteh Farahani and Patrick Timsit as Louis’s wife Faunia and best friend Zwy respectively, and Cosmina Stratan as Alice’s mysterious fan Lucia. In Desplechin’s always mystical universe, these characters are not only allies or enemies, but also potential confessors and saviors, ghosts and specters, ushering the protagonists, station by station, toward their mutual redemption.

The afternoon after its world premiere at Cannes, I sat down with Desplechin to discuss Brother and Sister and its relationship to his other films, as well as films by other directors, his work with actors, and the spiritually fortifying potential of cinema.

I wanted to start by asking you about similarities and differences between Brother and Sister and your earlier Vuillard family sagas. This film seems much more insular than the others. In Brother and Sister, the two leads feel cut off from life, as though they’ve removed themselves from reality. 

If I may disagree with what you are proposing, the difference between this film and the previous films—and I’m thinking, first of all, about A Christmas Tale, where you have the big argument between the sister and the brother—is that, in that film, you had so many subplots and digressions. This time, it’s one target and I had one arrow, and I wanted to aim at the heart of that target. Period. And in A Christmas Tale they were trapped in that house, which looked like a castle or mansion. But this time it’s these tiny places: this hotel room, this tiny apartment, these hospital rooms, et cetera. But what I did try was to break the film open to the world. I could say that this film is much more simple than my previous work, but I’m afraid that the depth is much more terrifying for me. It looks more straight to the point, but what we tried to do with [co-screenwriter] Julie Peyr is to dig into that awful depth.

Often, critics, when responding to your work, see the immediate point of the film but expect a more conventional path toward it, but you’re always charting a very crooked path. You thread this needle between flights of fancy that, in fact, are very rooted in the emotions of the characters, while also maintaining the realism of human relationships, which are often random, determined by chance or circumstance.

Working on the script with Julie Peyr and working with the actors, with Marion and Melvil and the others, they knew and I knew that this would be an obsessive film. It is obsessed by this one and only question: there is hate in the world, so how can we get rid of it? In real life, I can’t fix things. I could say that life is slightly overrated and that films are underrated. That’s a belief I share with Truffaut. I think you can fix the fabric of life in films, and that’s the beauty of films. It’s not an illusion at all, because if you do your job as a film director properly, the audience will be able to fix their lives. 

The question that Stanley Cavell asked was, “Do films make the world a better place?” Do films make us better than what we are? My answer is yes. I’m a better human being because I saw films. I’m learning from films. When you are 12 and you want to date a girl or a boy, you learn the proper lines from a film and you start to have an affair. It makes you better at life! 

The film was as obsessive as another film—which is almost caught inside Brother and SisterLa Chambre verte [The Green Room, 1978], the obsessive film of Truffaut, which has just one question, one obsession. That’s how I conceived my film as well. 

It’s interesting that you mention The Green Room, because that’s about a character who’s obsessed with the dead. Likewise, this film’s characters seem to dwell in the past, which marks their relationships to each other. Could you speak about this haunted quality? It’s pronounced, especially in Alice’s bond with the character of Lucia, who recalls the fan in Cassavetes’s Opening Night.

In Opening Night, for sure. Is [Lucia] real or is she an illusion or fantasy of Alice? It’s a question. The film—it’s not a spoiler because it’s the second scene of the film—starts with a very brutal car accident. So I knew with the fan that she wouldn’t die in the car accident like in the Cassavetes movie, because we already had a car accident, so [now] I have to save her. So she comes back in the film not like a ghost as in Opening Night, but as a real person. But is she a fantasy, an illusion of Alice? Is she a dream, a ghost, or something like that? I don’t know. I like to think that she’s real. But once again, it was a way for me to open the film to the world. Because she’s not French. She’s Romanian. She comes from other countries. She’s coming from the campagne [countryside]. She’s poor and Alice is wealthy. She’s a window on an open world, and I like to think that Lucia was sort of the fiancée of Alice, and that Zwy was sort of the fiancé of Louis. I like to say it’s two buddy movies. 

With the confession scene between Lucia and Alice, I was thinking deeply about a film, which I think is underrated: Woody Allen’s Another Woman, which is one of my favorites, with Gena Rowlands—the same [actress] as in the Cassavetes movie, but this time meeting Mia Farrow and suddenly being able to confess herself. Because it’s not in front of a man, it’s in front of a woman, and she will not judge her. So she will be able to confess at last, when she can’t do it with her family.

All your films have internal relationships to one another, but also external relationships to other cinema, almost like figments of film history in the work. I was curious that in the press notes, for Melvil Poupaud, you drew an analogy to Cary Grant, which suggests a relationship to screwball comedy in the ridiculousness of Louis and Alice’s hatred for one another. You also mention Five Easy Pieces. There, Jack Nicholson’s character, like Louis, is a son freighted with great expectations. 

The issue for me is trying not to be crushed by the references. Which is difficult for me because I’m living with all these films in mind. Five Easy Pieces was brought by Melvil. He said, you have to see this again. And I said, really? I’ve already seen it twice. No, [he insisted]: you need to see it again. So I saw it again. Now the task was to erase it, to try to find my own way. My own way is to see the films again and again and again until I’m sick, I’m vomiting them, and then I’m forced to invent, because I know them by heart. 

My other technique, which is not a technique, is my own experience of life, especially when I’ve been terrified by something. At one point in the film, there is a strange spot on the leg of Louis and Alice’s mother. I saw Million Dollar Baby something like 22 times. Why 22? Because I’m crying so much looking at the film that I can never see the film as an entire piece. I’m missing bits and pieces, because I’m crying. I worshipped that film so much that I thought: “I’m not allowed to film that scene, so I won’t film it.” So we discussed it with Julie Peyr and we said, “Okay, we have to cut this scene. It’s not possible.” But it happened that when [filmmaker and critic] Jean Douchet died, two days before his death, I was in the hospital with him. He was so funny, he was so noble—like a Roman prince. He was telling jokes. We were speaking about Dreyer, about Day of Wrath. We had a wonderful moment. Then at one point, the nurse called me and said, “What is this strange spot on the leg?” And we had to cut off Jean’s leg. Jean had been my cinema teacher for four decades. I couldn’t bear it. It was not possible. So all the feelings that Alice is going through about this issue—will I cut off the leg of my mother or not?—I’ve experienced with Jean, which allowed me to film it, even if Clint Eastwood was a genius. If I experience it, then it helps me to erase the influence of the films that I worship. 

Edo Choi is the assistant curator of film at the Museum of the Moving Image, as well as a freelance critic and projectionist.