Although it deals with a human body in decline, Patrice Chéreau’s Son Frére (2003) possesses a wondrous tactility that is bracing and invigorating, turning the movie into much more than the depressive experience it could have been. I found this to be by far the most satisfying of the Chéreau films I’ve seen. La Reine Margot (1994), the splendidly-titled Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (1998), Intimacy (2001) and Gabrielle (2006) all had superb moments, but jarring and unconvincing ones as well. Son Frére sustains itself from beginning to end, and I’d place the film as an elegant companion piece to François Ozon’s Time To Leave (2006) which also documented a young male protagonist’s journey to death and subtly queered its genre. Where Ozon’s film was distinguished by its hero’s removal of himself from the “comforts” offered by lover, friends and family, the main focus in Chéreau’s film is on the growing intimacy between two brothers, Thomas (Bruno Todeschini) and Luc (Eric Caravaca). Comfortably estranged, the pair are reunited when Thomas arrives at Luc’s apart with the news that he - Thomas - has been diagnosed with a blood disorder. The film charts the brothers’ growth into closeness as it moves between scenes documenting Thomas’s hospitalisation in Paris and those set later, in Brittany, where the brothers go when Thomas refuses more treatment.
The plot may have all the makings of a US TV movie-of-the-week/p, but, based on a novel by Phillipe Besson, Son Frére is an adaptation that has been thought out fully in cinematic terms. Chéreau has something of Claire Denis’s ability to eloquently film bodies: he often keeps the camera very close to the actors, but the effect is never intrusive or voyeuristic; instead the mood is one of tender concern and curiosity. (A lengthy sequence in which Luc observes Thomas being shaved before his operation is masterfully done.) What’s most intriguing about Son Frére, though, is its frank interlinking of Thanatos and Eros, and its sensitive exploration of the fraternal and sexual components of the central relationship. A brave, understated and (in all senses) touching film about the complexities of living, dying, desiring, and brotherly love.