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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005

Our mortality quietly celebrated in anatomy

Son frere

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Patrice Chereau
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: French
Opens Feb. 12
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Losing or gaining weight to accommodate a role has been in vogue for some time, and actors and actresses seem to gain and shed those pounds with increasing ease. When Robert De Niro beefed up for "Raging Bull," the cinema world gave him a standing ovation; now critics tend to ask "How many kilograms, in how many weeks?" before giving credit. Still, in this age of digitalized everything, the actor's flesh and bones and what they can do with them, have turned out to be their biggest assets (often overshadowing acting ability). Surely the enormous success of "Super Size Me" wasn't just about burgers being bad for mankind; it was also what the director was doing to his body and his willingness to show the changes to the world. Few things on screen are quite as powerful as a bare body -- whether pared down, full of bulges, sexually attractive or fantastically grotesque.

News photo
Eric Caravaca and Bruno Todeschini in "Son frere"

The brilliance of "Son frere" is that it goes all out to recognize, stress and celebrate this, yet with minimal, understated elegance. During the film's 90 minutes, you will see many bodies: some strapping and healthy, others in the process of ruthless damage. What director Patrice Chereau insists is that the bodies do the speaking, rather than have the characters offer explanations or converse with each other (a rarity in French cinema). In Chereau's frames the mere bending of an elbow, the lines and creases on a neck, the skin around the eyes going red a second before the character begins to weep -- these things fill the screen with an enormous significance.

Chereau seems enamored by all the bodies of his characters, but he reserves special scrutiny for Thomas (Bruno Todeschini), who has contracted a mysterious blood disease and is confined to a hospital bed most of the time.

Todeschini was required to lose 12 kg for this part even though he was very slender to begin with. Consequently the sight of his pale body with barely enough flesh to cover the bones, is without doubt the most powerful thing in the film. You can see how a body like his, frightening in its fragility, will also move people to sympathize, to weep and then do his bidding.

Still, most people can take only so much. Eventually everyone leaves Thomas' bedside except his estranged brother Luc (Eric Caravaca), a gay schoolteacher who remains simply because Thomas asked him to. The dynamics of the brothers' relationship invites endless speculation: There are moments when you sense that Luc was bullied ruthlessly by Thomas at some point in their childhood, and then there are times when you catch him looking at Thomas' limbs with something vaguely resembling lust. Prior to the illness, the brothers hadn't spoken in years. From their conversation, we infer that it's because Luc is gay and has no worldly ambitions while Thomas is the exact opposite.

Sharing time in the hospital room, however, the brothers develop the kind of bond that in other circumstances would have taken years to nurture. They even get a shorthanded communication going so that Luc seems to know and understand Thomas' needs before he bothers to voice them out loud. And the closer the brothers become, the more others around them feel alienated. The brothers' parents are subtly, politely, pushed out of the picture, and even their respective lovers find all the emotional baggage too heavy and depart.

In the meantime Thomas deteriorates steadily and, after a major operation that ultimately fails to remedy his condition, announces his refusal to undergo any further treatment. Luc backs him up, and takes him to the family's summer house in Bretagne, to recover from the ordeal of endless tests, doctors and medication.

Throughout, "Son frere" is soaked in a cold, forbidding light -- even the summer scenes in Bretagne are bleak, comprised of gray and blue tones that translate immediately into Thomas's despair. (Especially wretched is a scene where the brothers take on a walk on a nudist beach and Thomas briefly takes his shirt off, inviting astonished glances of pity from the bronzed, healthy crowd.) The hospital scenes are the gloomiest; the place is depicted as an institution designed for physical suffering (as opposed to gradually recovery). When Luc befriends a young patient (Robinson Stevnin), he's shown a huge scar on an emaciated abdomen: "I don't want them to cut me up anymore. I can't stand it. I'm only 19."

Rather than a polemic against surgeons, this seems to be part of the director's deep appreciation for the human physique. Witness the scene where Thomas is prepped for the final operation: Nurses come in to shave his body hair and the procedure is carried out in absolute silence, with only the razors making gentle scraping sounds as Thomas stares peacefully into space. The whole thing is almost a religious ritual, and the bed, with its blinding white sheet, resembles an altar. Chereau seems to say here that if anything is sacred and worth praying for, it is the human body.

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