New Places Within

by Stanley Kauffmann | May 3, 2004

SON FRÈRE
(Strand)

I’M NOT SCARED
(Miramax)

THE FRENCH DIRECTOR Patrice Chéreau is having a double career that, at least in shape and intent, is comparable to Ingmar Bergman’s, Chéreau, born in 1944, directs in the theater, both plays and operas, and in film. (He also directs in television and acts from time to time.) The only theater production of his that I have seen was one that was televised, The Ring of the Nibelungen, done for the Bayreuth Festival in 1980 and apparently inspired by the views in Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite. Still, it seems fair to conclude that, because his theater dossier includes so many classics—Phèdre, Peer Gynt, and Hamlet among them—the theater and film arts function symbiotically for him, as they did for Bergman: in a kind of balance. Allowing for exceptions on both sides of the ledger, we can see that Chéreau uses film to do what he cannot do in the theater—work in close, with a physical intimacy that the stage doesn’t comparably permit. In fact, his last film was called Intimacy, and the camera was virtually in bed with a man and a woman to capture the heat of sex.

But the three films of Chéreau’s that I have seen were a long way from Bergman quality. Thus it is pleasant to report that SON FRÈRE is a real achievement, delicate, perceptive, somewhat muted but nonetheless strong. The screenplay, adapted by Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic from a novel by Philippe Besson, deals with two brothers, both around thirty, whose lives have diverged, especially because the younger one, Luc, is gay. Events push them together. Thomas, the elder, has been afflicted with a dangerous blood disorder; and although he has a devoted girlfriend, the intensity of his trouble, and of his fright, makes him seek Luc’s help, with Luc’s very estrangement as well as his concern to keep him company.

The film moves in and out of a hospital (where Thomas’s doctor is a woman reminiscent of the psychiatrist in Persona), the brothers’ apartments, and the coast of Brittany near the old family home, where the landscape prompts memories of boyhood fun and quarrels. But the real setting of the film is Thomas’s illness. It becomes the ambience in which the two men find out more about each other and, of course, about themselves. Glimmering outside that dark ambience is a suggestion that the illness is a clarifier. It is not a blessing in disguise, not a metaphor: it is part of the traversal of life that affects the ill person and those who care. It affects the way they care.

Chéreau takes his time. Within the expected temporal frame of a film, the flow of minutes to which we are accustomed, he lingers, he observes, he absorbs, he rests for moods. The most obvious instance of this is the hospital scene where Thomas is being prepared for surgery by two nurses. He lies nude on his bed, and gently, amiably, they shave his entire torso. Chéreau’s purpose is not fright or indignity but to dramatize the idea that here, inside this shaveable torso, this mere object, is the complexity that transforms this person into a nexus of sensibilities, radiated and received. Chéreau’s patience with this scene transforms a commonplace action into a small epiphany.

As the brothers, Bruno Todeschini (Thomas) and Eric Caravaca (Luc) evoke perfectly the sense not that they have begun and are fulfilling a film, but that we have joined these brothers at this stage of their long relationship. Their deepening knowledge of their separate but joined privacies is the quintessence of the film and is quite lovely. In the lesser role of Thomas’s girlfriend, Nathalie Boutefeu touches some truth about devotion and its changes. The parents of the brothers visit the hospital from time to time, but they seem to have little connection with their sons in any way or with that home in Brittany.

In any case, Son Frère helps to confirm the resemblance between Chéreau’s career and Bergman’s.

An Italian film called I’M NOT SCARED is a warm allegory in search of a meaning. The setting is southern Italy—1978, for no perceptible reason—and principally we move through immense golden wheat fields in Mezzogiorno sun. In this setting, which is almost a reproof of the dim places where most of us spend our lives, strangenesses evolve.

The screenplay by Francesca Marciano and Niccolb Ammaniti, adapted from the latter’s novel, centers on Michele, a boy of ten living in an isolated house with his parents and little sister. The parents seem to be what we expect, a hardworking mother who is stern but loving, a genial father who is more affectionate than his wife because, perhaps, he works less and, when he returns from absences, cuddles the children more. One day Michele is playing with some friends around an abandoned house. The others leave, and he investigates a strawcovered plank in the ground. It is the cover of what is probably a former cellar. Within that small cavern, Michele discovers, after an initial fright, a boy chained to a stake. Consequences inevitably tumble on. Other men come to Michele’s house to confer with his father, and the son discovers that they are all a gang who have kidnapped Filippo, the child in the cellar, from a rich Milanese family and are trying to extort a ransom for him.

Matters move on more or less the way we hope they will, and Michele, who has been responsible in some part for the conclusion of things, is seen at the last in a blatantly symbolic shot. But what is it symbolic of? What are we to make of all that has happened? That the cruelty of children, seen in Michele’s early games, presages criminality? That a loving father can be a gangster, and a hardworking mother can be his accomplice? Are we asked to discover that black deeds can happen in a tranquil countryside? Or that this contrast is a symbol of the human spirit? Or that a boy’s compassion, innate despite his parents, causes a wrong to be addressed? Unfortunately we can choose any one of the above, or none.

Still, the film is remarkable for something besides its visual immersion in gold. The director, Gabriele Salvatores, has added his name to the roster of film-makers who have drawn remarkable acting from children. Giuseppe Cristiano (Michele) and Mattia Di Pierro (Filippo) are both newcomers but give “uncoached,” genuine performances—as do all the other children involved. In fact, I was less impressed by Dino Abbrescia as the father.

This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2004, issue of the magazine.

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