Tuesday, August 11, 2020
Victor Habchy and Martin Escoffier | Un frère (A Brother)
from blood to the heart
by Douglas Messerli
Martin Escoffier and Victor Habchy (witers and directors) Un frère (A Brother) / 2018
One you get over the fact that French directors Victor Habchy and Martin Escoffier suggest that an older brother, age 17, is the best one to teach his younger sibling of 15 the joys of sex—including male-to-male masturbation, oral sex, and all-out buggering, along with old-fashioned canoodling, tickling, and erotic messaging, some of these acts performed in the same room with a young sister—A Brother is one of the most charming and seemingly innocent of celebrations of gay love since Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name of a year earlier, several of whose tropes this film incorporates.
I’ll grant you that Tom (Simon Royer) and Félix (Marin Lafitte) are not really brothers, but Tom has long dreamed of having a slightly older sibling, and like the rest of his family, who have all just retreated to their summer rental house, is distressed to hear that a family friend announced she has just had a stillborn baby boy who might have been a brother to his older sibling.
Sleeping in bunk beds with his overly curious and intelligent sister Bertille (the memorable child actor Oriane Barbaza), Tom suddenly awakens to find a strange boy asleep on a nearby palette. “Who is he?” asks Bertille. “I don’t know,” answers her far more timid elder brother. One can almost imagine the comical late-night interchange between Tom and his parents: “Mom, Dad, there’s a boy beside my bed!” And in this sense, the sudden appearance of the intruder is a bit like a supernatural miracle, a slightly symbolic appearance of a liberating force not so very different from the visiting angel in Pasolini’s Teorema.
Félix, we soon discover, is the son of his mother’s friend Iris, who for slightly mysterious reasons (her husband evidently is in London to where she and Félix soon intend to travel) have been invited by Tom’s parents to stay with them until they depart.
If at first the new boy seems a bit distant and even surly, particularly when he comes to his relationships with adults, Félix soon proves himself a wonderful older brother-figure to Bertille and quickly gains the trust of Tom, who has just a few days earlier found a cache of 60 euros (discovered in Bertille’s bag after a run-in with an older boy who has probably stolen her toy bus), and now determines to share the money not only with his sister but with his new found “brother”—over the protests of his sister, I might add.
Before we know it, the boys are showering together with Félix languorously messaging shampoo into Tom’s hair and demanding Tom do the same for him. Before we can even wink, the two have extended their pulsating hands to run them over each other’s chest and, finally, their penises. It is, quite evidently, sex at first sight.
The only problem—at least for Tom—is that his new “brother” is a heterosexual exploring not only sex, but liquor, drugs, and all things that might be forbidden.
His mother is obviously far more open-minded about his liquor consumption than are Tom’s parents. But then all three are what might be described as somewhat absentee parents who party each night quite late at a nearby wine-tasting bar, leaving Bertille in Tom’s trusting hands.
For his part, Tom, who at 15 is still a virgin who has never even imagined having a girlfriend, shies away from the new activities in which Félix attempts to involve him, including hanging out with two friendly local girls at the neighborhood lake. In some senses, Tom is a bit like all younger brothers who slightly hold back the foolhardy impulses of the elder.
Yet Félix does manage to inebriate Tom with a half bottle of wine stolen from the family’s basement, and later, to get the 15-year old peaceably stoned in the nearby tree-house. Félix insists that his new younger “brother” join him at a party to which he is invited by a girl to whom the elder is attracted, and even manages to extend the curfew time until midnight.
Seeing Tom’s total discomfort as he sits alone, almost mopeing while the elder dances with the host, Félix invites his little brother to dance, teaching him a basic hopping step which suddenly lights up Tom’s face as if he and the elder boy suddenly were the loving couple he secretly hopes they might become.
Yet, when Félix returns to his girlfriend, the younger boy is even more chagrined, and, since their curfew is fast approaching determines, despite his brother’s pleas, to leave the party early. We later discover that soon after Tom has left, the police arrived and closed down the party for loud noise, drugs, and sexual acts. It is a foretelling, of sorts, of a later event, when the brothers need to heed each other’s warnings.
On a bicycle outing a few days later, Félix encourages Tom to stop in a field along the way where, pulling down the 15-year-old’s pants, he begins to suck him off until the owner of the grove scares them off.
We might still describe this act as another attempt by Félix to “teach” his new-found sibling, but when the two later take to the shower again, this time ending with the elder enjoyably fucking the younger, we know that, no matter where the rest of the narrative goes, that these two boys and the directors’ movie has moved on into a place that can no longer accept their brotherhood to be something related to blood except as it pulses through the heart.
In a few days Félix and his mother will leave the boys’ new-found paradise, and in the meantime the two can hardly keep their hands off each another. At one point when Tom joins the elder boy in bed, running his fingers down Félix’s back while whispering into his ear, Bertille, quite awake, queries them with a quite calm voice, “Are you two kissing?”
Even while they work to put a nearly impossible picture puzzle together, the camera scans their fingers as if they were aching to touch something other than the “puzzle” that may be said to signify their own lives. That puzzle represents the famous Hokusai’s The Great Wave, a foreboding image that will soon play a role in their lives.
To celebrate Félix’s last night at the resort, he and Tom attend a beachside party with others their age, including the boy who, in the first scene, had stolen Bertille’s toy. He now apologizes to Tom for his behavior, but Tom’s attention is far more concentrated on his friend’s attempt to sneak away with his girlfriend.
Tom soon discovers them, apart from the others, in deep embracement as they kiss. His jealousy is obvious, even in the darkened landscape in which the directors have shadowed their acts. When the other party-goers, in search of more beer and snacks, suddenly determine to swim across the lake in order to reach the store instead of driving there, Tom, atypical of his cautiousness cries out that he will join them.
He has hardly jumped into the lake, however, before the abashed Félix appears on the pier to ask Tom to return. At first his friend ignores his pleas, but when he begs Tom not to join the others, the would-be swimmer almost joyfully gives up his intentions.
At the train station the next morning Tom attempts to stolidly accept his lover’s departure very much in the same way that Timothée Chalamet sees off Armie Hammer in Guadagnino’s film. But suddenly overhearing his mother’s comment, upon reading the local news, that 3 youths were drowned the night before in the nearby lake, Tom—as in so many dozens of romantic films—runs after the train as it leaves the station.
In the day of totally electronically controlled doors and windows, however, there is utterly no possibility that Tom might, like Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon be pulled into the car by his Gary Cooper. Tom’s desperate cry of his lover’s name declares his recognition that he has suddenly lost an important part of his life. His innocence has been transformed that very moment from a simple loss of love into a new identity that will completely alter the rest of his life. The love that could have no name now surely has one.
Los Angeles, August 11, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2020).