Two brothers confront mortal illness and reacquaint themselves with unconditional love in Patrice Chéreau’s Son Frère, which could just as well have taken the title of the director’s previous movie, Intimacy. Eric Gautier’s close, probing camera never flinches from the physical afflictions on view and seems to register every flicker of emotional anguish as well (the film might also have been called Faces). If Todd Haynes’s Safe inverted the tropes of the disease-of-the-week movie, Son Frère simply subjects the genre to a clinical demystification. There’s no triumph over adversity, no brave and noble suffering, no supporting cast of witticism dispensers as in The Barbarian Invasions. Even the central reconciliation lacks cathartic histrionics. Chéreau’s film is an unsentimental, almost uninflected, account of a preparation for death, told with a painful clarity that eventually bleeds into compassion.
Thirtysomething Thomas (a convincingly ashen, ravaged Bruno Todeschini) shows up one night at the Paris apartment of his estranged younger brother, Luc (Eric Caravaca), with news that he’s been suffering from a rare blood disorder—he has a serious platelet deficiency, which leaves him at constant risk of hemorrhage. He’s due back at the hospital and asks Luc to accompany him. Thomas has summoned others to his bedside— nervous mom and irritable dad are in from Nantes, and his put-upon girlfriend, Claire (Nathalie Boutefeu), is also present, albeit visibly uncomfortable. But the one Thomas really insists on having around is, of all people, Luc, whose homosexuality Thomas has never accepted and who has in turn kept his distance most of their adult life.
Son Frère alternates between two time frames—late winter in Paris, where Thomas is undergoing a battery of frustrating medical procedures, and a few months later at the Brittany coast, where Thomas is resting under Luc’s care. Both leads beautifully convey the slow thaw in the brothers’ relationship. Todeschini’s Thomas is a difficult prick when he can muster the energy (as in Chéreau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, the dying are not above making the most selfish demands), and Caravaca’s anxious, baby-faced Luc is motivated initially by guilt and familial obligation. But their strengthening fraternal bond comes to dominate the film, to the exclusion of all other relationships—Claire can’t take the strain of being around Thomas, and Luc breaks up with his sensitive boyfriend, Vincent (Sylvain Jacques).
When Luc wonders how Thomas copes with the frightening unpredictability of his illness, Vincent replies: “I think he thinks about it. That’s why he’s not afraid.” He might equally be describing Chéreau’s approach. (As is Thomas when he explains a peculiarity of his condition: “I feel everything.”) Son Frère takes in the world of the sick—the culture and topography of the hospital—with a calm, steely equanimity: the indignities Thomas’s body is subjected to, the baffling, circular conversations with doctors, the sallow, fluorescent-lit corridors, the terrible waiting-room coffee machines. Chéreau’s fixed gaze peaks in intensity as two nurses methodically shave Thomas’s body in preparation for an operation—the spectacle of a man reduced to utter helplessness, studied with such rapt attention that it starts to take on an air of religio-erotic ritual. The scene, which lasts more than five minutes—silent but for the hum of clippers, the squelch of shaving cream, and the rasp of razor on skin—is an emblematic one for a film about the loss of control over one’s body, and the attendant erosion of will.
It may be the ultimate measure of Son Frère‘s generosity that several times throughout, words are swallowed up by a fumbling caress. The roil of inarticulate emotion spills over into spontaneous physical contact—Luc consoling Claire as the two fall into a passionate kiss, or gently kneading the knots in Thomas’s stiff shoulders. In the most memorable instance, Luc locks eyes with a teenager in a hospital corridor wheeling his IV drip—after the kid exposes his fresh abdominal scar, Luc impulsively grabs his arm. These stabs of awkward tenderness practically puncture the fabric of the film. Chéreau’s scrutiny is so patient, intimate, and unyielding that when two people suddenly touch on-screen—all credit to Gautier’s practically under-the-skin cinematography—it’s as if the viewer is in on the embrace too, salved by an unexpected gesture of tactile solace.