Monia Chokri’s film 'A Brother’s Love' portrays the emotionally fraught relationship between Sophia (above) and her brother Karim.

Film, Screen

A Brother’s Love enables new horizons in a time of pandemic

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This much is clear: the scope of the pandemic is staggering. There’s no better way to overwhelm yourself than to think in terms of what the accumulation of all these changes – lives lost, jobs lost, borders closed, plans upended – means in aggregate. That way is where madness and terror lie.

But then, it was ever thus.

In his book A Month in Siena, Hisham Matar finds himself considering the city’s cluttered skyline. As he walks, his views are interrupted by buildings and streets collapsing into each other, all conspiring to prevent an uninterrupted glimpse of the horizon. He eventually reaches the city wall and is immediately afforded a sweeping vista.

“I suddenly felt I understood, and could see from Siena’s point of view, that infinity is a claustrophobic prospect,” he writes. “That it is perfectly appropriate, given the chaotic nature of life, to cordon off an area in which to interpret ourselves, where one can decide what is important, what  is to be privileged and left out, determine the axes of the main thoroughfares and the arrangement of streets between them.”

It seems to me that cordoning off an area for yourself is an important task in the current moment. But this does not mean siloing yourself off from others. Rather, mindfully cordoning off our own little patch helps create the opportunity to see other things more clearly – whether that be friends, family or, of course, art. 

Film, literature, video games, music: expressions of how other human beings see the world. At a very basic level, responding to art in quarantine is a helpful reminder that other human beings exist. Important! But in a more sustaining way, art helps us create meaning in our own lives. Even if we hate what we watch, we clarify our own understanding of the world and, therefore, ourselves. As the painter Gerhard Richter once said, art is the highest form of hope. 

All of which is to say, this week I have found one such source of hope in Monia Chokri’s A Brother’s Love. The film was scheduled to screen around Australia at the now-cancelled French film festivals, but thankfully SBS On Demand has picked it up. 

This is Chokri’s directorial debut, although she is well known to film festival audiences as an actor, particularly for her creative relationship with the Quebec director Xavier Dolan (responsible for one of my favourite films of last year, Matthias and Maxime). 

“Despite a couple of misguided detours . . . this is a stylish and affecting portrait of the increasingly prevalent thirtysomething wilderness years.”

Set in Montreal, A Brother’s Love is a stylish portrait of Sophia (Anne-Élisabeth Bossé), an overeducated and underemployed thirtysomething woman, and her emotionally dependent relationship with her older, somewhat more stable brother Karim (Patrick Hivon). The two share an intense bond, most entertainingly articulated in the form of jokey intellectual questions they’re constantly asking each other. 

“Dog videos or cat videos?” he asks her at one point. “It’s one of the fundamental questions by which Westerners define themselves.”

Chokri deploys 16mm film to visually striking effect. She elegantly paints the family dynamics in an early scene, in which both adult children visit their parents for dinner. At the table, she frames the group as two couples – siblings one side, parents the other. After dinner, Mum and Dad start enthusiastically dancing, and the camera slowly zooms across the living room to Karim, who is watching in amusement. Mid-smile, his face turns slightly to the camera, he raises his eyebrows – as if to ask his sister, ‘You good?’ – before he returns smile and focus to his parents.

Karim falls head over heels in love with his sister’s gynaecologist, Eloise, adding a new complexity to the siblings’ relationship.

Karim accompanies Sophia as she gets an abortion, and before long he’s started dating her gynaecologist Eloïse (Evelyne Brochue, from TV series Orphan Black). Eloïse is, in many ways, Sophia’s opposite: elegant, put-together, professionally successful and well-versed in social manners and respectability. As for Sophia, well, her life philosophy is articulated in one moment of despair early in the film: “the less you think, the better looking you are, and happier you’ll be.” 

It’s a telling line. She sees herself as not being so lucky, but she dresses this apparent self-awareness up in a comforting amount of ironic intellectualising.

The appearance of a new competitor for her brother’s affections predictably sends Sophia spinning, and when Karim asks his new girlfriend a jokey riddle of the kind he usually shares with his sister, it’s hard for Sophia not to see it as an act of betrayal. She grows increasingly caustic, leading to a confrontation between them in which Karim yells that she judges everyone else to distract from her own empty life. 

And so, Sophia – cut off from her life plans thanks to a potent mix of patriarchy, nepotism and general economic malaise, and constructing her self-worth almost entirely through the prism of her relationship with her brother – is forced to create meaning for herself elsewhere. 

Despite a couple of misguided detours (including a minor supporting character whose unfortunate fate seems to exist solely to spur Sophia into self-actualisation), this is a stylish and affecting portrait of the increasingly prevalent thirtysomething wilderness years. It’s full of funny little moments which help throw the serious subject matter into stark relief.

A Brother’s Love’stars Anne-Élisabeth Bossé and Patrick Hivon.

The film and its characters embody often ambivalent notions of what it means to be in their thirties. “I don’t know if you can trust a skater over 30,” Sophia drolly observes at one point, but she’s hardly a portrait of conventional maturity herself (as one character says upon hearing that she’s been on a bender – “right on, 30 is the new 20!”) 

She muddles on through a too-long third act, as Karim disappears for a lengthy stretch. Eventually, she lands a gig teaching newly arrived migrants English. One of the only sequences in the film not entirely focused on Sophia, this montage sees each member of the class introduce themselves, and what they miss about home.

In other words, it pays to step outside ourselves. Yes, as Hisham Matar observed, in order to preserve our sanity, we must interrupt the horizon by cordoning off an area for ourselves. But it must remain in view. Funny how easy it is for that little patch we create to simply take its place. 

A Brother’s Love is screening on SBS On Demand.

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