Whatever other flaws “Brother and Sister” may have, you absolutely cannot accuse it of being slow to build. Within its first 10 minutes, two estranged siblings bawl each other out at a dead child’s wake, one declaring the other “an indecent monster”; a screechingly staged single-vehicle car crash imperils an elderly couple and paralyzes a teenage driver; then, a barrelling truck at the scene brings further tragedy. Even before we’ve had time to gather the principals’ names, French director Arnaud Desplechin’s latest dysfunctional family tableau makes no bones about its dialed-to-11 melodramatic agenda; that attention-grabbing intensity soon dissipates, however, in the gauzy, maudlin study of toxic sibling relations that ensues. Marion Cotillard’s headlining presence may pique international interest in a talky piece likely to play better on home turf.
The outward signs were promising for Desplechin’s swift follow-up to his stuffy Philip Roth adaptation “Deception,” which premiered at last year’s Cannes festival, albeit in a telling non-competitive sidebar slot. “Brother and Sister” returns the Croisette veteran to Competition; better yet, it appears to share some manner of DNA with the director’s wonderful 2008 film “A Christmas Tale,” a ripe, busy pileup of unraveling family baggage that shares key character names with the new film — though not actual characters, as if “Brother and Sister” represents a parallel-universe formation of comparably messy domestic dynamics. (Leading man Melvil Poupaud links the two films’ ensembles, though not by a common character name.)
It hardly seems worth scrutinizing superficial parallels, anyway, when it becomes clear that “A Christmas Tale’s” tart wit and communal warmth are not much in evidence here: Abrasive and brittle and distant from its characters even as they shriek their issues across the room, “Brother and Sister” is a narrative fueled more by irrational hate than unconditional love. The seething animosity between revered stage actor Alice Vuillard (Cotillard) and her brother Louis (Poupaud), a once-acclaimed author, is never directly explained in Desplechin and Julie Peyr’s distractedly time-hopping script; it’s not shown building and gathering in linear fashion. Instead, it explodes immediately in the film’s oddly placed prologue, as the evidently long-absent Alice shows up for the funeral of Louis’s late six-year-old son, prompting a torrent of verbal warfare that sets the shouty tone for proceedings.
Cut to five years later, and the siblings’ strictly separated paths must converge once more when the aforementioned road accident lands their parents Abel (Joël Cudennec) and Marie-Louise (Nicolette Picheral) in hospital — the latter in a severe coma. As the siblings, together with their ineffectual younger brother Fidèle (Benjamin Siksou), must collectively negotiate an uncertain future for the family — and some potentially tough decisions regarding their parents’ fates — the warring pair still stubbornly, snarlingly avoid contact. It’s a rift that effectively bisects the film’s perspective, sending both characters down separate, flashback-heavy tours of memory and trauma: a device that could yield interesting formal rewards if only the blankly unknown, almost macguffin-like root of their apparently two-decade feud didn’t keep stopping the film’s storytelling in its tracks.
There are hints and allegations, as Paul Simon might say. In flashback, we see that the struggling Alice was fiercely envious of Louis’ earlier writing success, though there’s little sense of why she’d hold onto this resentment long after her own career has surged and his has gone quiet. Elsewhere, Desplechin and Peyr offer faint, slippery suggestions of childhood abuse that some viewers may key into more than others. For the most part, however, the hatred between the two is presented as an almost mythic force, an obstacle more enduring than its origins. Yet Alice and Louis are such artificial, wanly self-absorbed characters, forever speaking in finely turned, therapy-honed aphorisms that never sound anything other than screen-written, that it’s hard even to invest in their conflict at an abstract level.
Both playing in a consistently high, manic key — all the better to match the overbearing strings of Grégoire Hetzel’s ever-present score — Cotillard and Poupaud struggle to find much life or levity in these eternally angry, artsy cyphers, especially in isolation. It’s only when circumstances (and fate, in one bizarre twist on meet-cute tradition) force the overgrown brats into the same room that the film takes on a nervous, recognizably human energy, cuing at least one honest, plausibly halting conversation.
It’s too little and far too late in “Brother and Sister,” which is otherwise clogged with less urgent subplots involving secondary characters who never come into focus: Louis’s beatifically supportive wife Faunia (a wasted Golshifteh Farahani), nursing a maternal grief the film never fully articulates; Lucia (Cosmina Stratan), a lonely, desperate fan of Alice’s to whom the diva offers some stray kindness; and a tangle of backstory involving past friends and lovers that does little to set the ugly, inexplicable present in relief. By the end of all this draggy sturm und drang, It’s hard not to conclude, like a wearied parent, that the siblings should simply have grown up, swallowed their pride and set aside their differences years ago — if not for their own sake, then at least for that of the audience.