Arnaud Desplechin has once again wheeled his bizarre sweets trolley into the Cannes restaurant: another clotted confection of tragi-romantic-comic gibberish. Desplechin is a Cannes fixture and his weirdly indulgent jeux d’esprit certainly give the competition a flavour of sorts. But this is exasperatingly nonsensical and humourless: it is full of grand gestures, gigantically self-important acting, big scenes (though often bafflingly truncated), big emotions and smirkingly knowing dialogue. Yet I admit there is technique and gusto to the way it is put together.
The story is about a brother and sister who hate each other. And why exactly? Well, it’s not entirely clear, and if the point is that sibling tension often isn’t explicable – well, that idea also isn’t clear. Marion Cotillard is Alice, a hugely famous stage star who is performing in an adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. Her brother Louis (Melvil Poupaud) is a celebrated author who is insufferably conceited in ways Desplechin presumably did not intend. There is a third sibling, who hardly features, and Alice has a husband and a child from whom she seems weirdly detached.
Louis and Alice’s relationship has been poisoned by a gnawing envy of each other’s success. It came to a head when he apparently wrote a tell-all family memoir for which she sued him (this vital fact is thrown away in an almost subliminal fragment of dialogue). And when Louis got married to Faunia (Golshifteh Farahani) and had a child, Alice never even spoke to them. Then Louis’s child dies – a tragic event that seems all but forgotten in the maelstrom of pouty acting – and Alice’s ashen-faced appearance at the wake only exacerbates Louis’s hatred. He writes another hurtful memoir, but brother and sister may yet be brought together by a tragedy – yes, another tragedy – involving their elderly parents.
There isn’t a single convincing moment in all the airily sophisticated dialogue. When Louis meets Faunia for the first time, it is in a restaurant: Louis is drunk and Alice, who is seated near him, makes a shocking emotional scene and crashes out of the room. But Faunia, like no human being you have ever met, continues to make knowing remarks. Is she supposed to be sociopathic?
When Louis and Alice finally meet in a café for a big showdown, Desplechin simply cuts off the scene before anything important is said. Later, a highly emotional Louis gets out on to the roof, apparently about to throw himself from the edge. And then … the scene cuts to some other bit of nonsensical piffle, without us seeing how Louis was presumably talked back from the brink.
Desplechin’s overwrought whimsy and fantasy has worked in the past, but increasingly his movies look like a two-hour perfume commercial: insouciance, for men and women.