A bracing antidote to clichéd disease-of-the-week movies, French director Patrice Cheréau's award-winning follow-up to Intimacy explores the relationship between two estranged siblings when the elder brother is diagnosed with a potentially fatal blood disorder. Shifting backwards and forwards in time between wintry Paris and summery Brittany, Son Frere may be small in scale, but it's a powerfully uncompromising and sombre work.
Adapted from Philippe Besson's novel, the movie charts in considerable detail the physical decline of its main character, Thomas (Bruno Todeschini), during the tests, injections, and surgery that he endures as part of his hospital treatment. Eric Gautier's camera focuses on the patient's mottled and bruised skin, on the enormous scar left by an operation, and on the man's increasingly emaciated frame. In a particularly compelling scene, which seems to unfold in real time, his body hair is expertly shaved off by nurses, watched by his speechless brother Luc (Eric Caravaca).
"BRAVE CONVINCING PERFORMANCE"
Todeschini's brave, convincing performance makes us believe in Thomas' chronic deterioration, and the fact that the latter is at his weakest in the holiday season provides a dramatic contrast between his sickly flesh and the tanned, healthy bodies on the beach. Nor does Thomas fit the profile of the sufferer who heroically battles against his condition: what so upsets his father (Fred Ulysse) is that he doesn't seem to have any will for the struggle in hand, and what his doctors can't grasp is why he refuses to lead a life of caution for the sake of his health.
At the same time, Cheréau keeps his focus on the the gradual reconciliation between the two brothers, who at the beginning know so little of each other's lives. The illness takes its toll on their other relationships, however, with Thomas splitting up with his girlfriend (Nathalie Boutefeu) and the gay Luc no longer seeing his boyfriend (Sylvain Jacques). The film's austerity is reflected in the fact that there's just one song on the soundtrack, Marianne Faithful's gloomy Sleep.
In French with English subtitles.