David, let me clarify a point explicitly if not implicitly. Slagging the institution of the New York Times is a venerable film critic tradition—one that this year’s Movie Club, of all groups, should be familiar with. But I have no interest in slagging Tony as Tony. In fact, I respect the seriousness and intelligence he applies to his work. I happily respond to his intriguing inquiry about my championing of Son Frère over other films with related themes. Illness, death, family tension, human responsibility, and intimacy are profound subjects, and Patrice Chereau’s pure pursuit of them was also profound. Yes, it is a hard film to watch at first (no dancing girls), but as it proceeds, Chereau’s artistry lights up this two brothers story.
Son Frère doesn’t offer conventional uplift but a clear and intense vision. (Calling its style “documentary” evades its point and its beauty.) This film exults in several kinds of nakedness—physical, emotional, spiritual—which brings the brothers’ experience closer. And it’s done through “art,” the sort of style you rarely see in the CGI age and that is completely original to Chereau (cf. his modern epic Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train). Chereau is a stage-to-film director, as Visconti was. But you can’t see the artifice for the rich sensuality. Son Frère offers a tough sensuality and it is linked to mortality. It is sentimental in the best sense. One’s sentiment is respected, earned. It’s the rare film completely without cliché. This cannot be said for Million Dollar Baby or the even sappier The Sea Inside.
Obviously, I think Son Frère is a major achievement. That critics failed to rally behind it can be called lily-livered, but it’s more likely the sad result of the film having a small distributor. Strand Releasing just didn’t have the wherewithal to make the film a media event comparable to the Eastwood and Amenábar. Critics were needed to tell the public that Son Frère’s substance matters. Without that support, the Eastwood and Amenábar (and even Ray) are made to seem more important simply because there’s Time Warner promotional money behind them.
And yes, those films are indeed easier to watch. You don’t have to work at them, which is why they will eventually mean less—every time you watch them, and in future movie history. Eastwood and Amenábar comfort audiences with cliché. That’s why Million Dollar Baby sits so easily at the top of so many uninspired critics’ lists—as do Sideways and Before Sunset. There’s no challenge in these films, and compared to Son Frère, only hackneyed, fake artistry. The shame is that many moviegoers missed out due to critical neglect and—dare I say?—laziness (which, in turn, encourages lazy movie watching). Chereau realizes that a deeper understanding of the human condition must be diligently pursued (we’re still in the AIDS era, but that’s not the only crisis he addresses). Most critics didn’t accept the challenge of Son Frère, and many simply never bothered with it, despite Chereau’s well-established credentials. When this happens, audiences lose out on a great movie, and Time Warner wins again.