Me and My Sister

(Les sours fâchées, Alexandra Leclère, France, 2004)


I am regularly astounded by the propensity of quite ordinary French movies to contain strikingly well conceived and executed scenes – on a level of quality that one rarely finds in ordinary films from most other countries.

Take the start of Me and My Sister, Alexandra Leclère's debut feature. It begins with a disconcerting sound, which turns out to be Martine (Isabelle Huppert) gargling in the bathroom. We note the odd angle on Martine's luminous but cold face – we are going to see this image again at a key moment late in the film. Then we are instantly into a Citizen Kane-style dinner table conservation between Martine and her husband Pierre (François Berléand): the emotional distance between them is conveyed by the way they are both filmed front-on, with no overlap between their respective 'personal spaces'. Martine's cracks are banal but niggling: she is annoyed by the sound of Pierre breathing.

What is it going to take to push this intolerable domestic situation to breaking point? Enter Louise (Catherine Frot), Martine's sister from the provinces. Where Martine is mean-spirited, repressed and controlling, Louise is uninhibitedly vulgar, enthusiastic and spontaneous. Where Louise is beginning to live a new life (moving in with her lover and writing a book), Martine's brittle circle of friends is rapidly dissolving. The film is a jolly comedy of manners, but that's not all it is.

The prime sign of quality and inventiveness on American television is when a writer-producer like David E. Kelley labours to tip an episode of Boston Legal from comedy to drama. But run-of-the-mill French movies like Me and My Sister achieve this with seeming effortlessness, and usually more than once in the course of the story.

At a certain point, we start to feel sorry for the horrible Martine. Even so, we gasp whenever she cracks, dishing out both verbal and physical abuse to those closest to her. Huppert is an old hand at walking this fine line between light and dark, between inviting our sympathy and repelling it.

There are a hundred highbrow French films I would rather see in our local arthouses above Me and My Sister. But, while you wait for the rest, you may as well enjoy this one for the modest things it does well.

© Adrian Martin August 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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