It sounds unlikely, but in order to make her first film, screenwriter and director Alexandra Leclère approached Isabelle Huppert in the street while they were both collecting their children from school and give her a copy of her script for Les Soeurs Fâchées. Essentially a story of two sisters, one from the country with simpler attitudes who comes to stay for a short while with her sophisticated sister who lives in the big city – what sounds like a straightforward fluff comedy of manners actually has a darker, more bitter undercurrent that gives the film an unexpected weight.
As she has an interview with a publishing company for a book she has written, Louise (Catherine Frot) travels out from the provinces to stay with her Parisian sister, Martine (Isabelle Huppert) and her husband Pierre (François Berléand). The two sisters couldn’t be more different. Louise from the country is a bit kookie and eccentric, but gentle with people and open to continually developing and improving herself. Martine on the other hand, is tense caught up in her world of shopping, hairdressers and lunches with an exclusive set of friends – she’s also bitterly unhappy with her lifestyle and her marriage, both of which are stagnant. Louise is embarrassingly gauche in social situations, but she seems to enjoy herself more than her sister and her friends, who take part in them for all the wrong reasons – to be seen and feel included in an exclusive social set. Inevitably, there is a clash of two different worlds here, which is as broad as it sounds while being fairly amusing at the same time. But the film has a lot more going for it than just this Odd Couple-style goofing around, the film revealing a more serious side. Predictably it must be admitted, this arises out of Martine’s dissatisfaction with the direction her life has taken – married to a man she despises, mother to a child she has no interest in, living a life that is empty and superficial. What is surprising about this and much less predicable from the story’s initial set-up and premise, is just quite how dark and bitterly this side of the film is portrayed.
There are a number of reasons why this uneasy combination of comedy and brutality works. One is the strength of the characters and the unexpected complexity of what are mainly broad character types. Martine’s husband, it transpires, is cheating on her with her best friend – this is revealed early in the film so is not a spoiler as such – which again might not sound like a particularly complex or original plot point, but in actuality, the reasons for his infidelity are not so straightforward. He could just be a brute or he could have been pushed to those lengths by an extremely uptight and unaffectionate wife. Again not exactly original, but what is different is that the film doesn’t automatically lead the viewer to sympathise with one partner over another – the behaviour of both is reprehensible and the film makes that point with no reservations. The other reason the film works so well is down to the cast. Huppert, needless to say, is perfect for playing such complex, cold, bitter and repressed characters. This role is not much of a stretch for her compared to similar roles in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, François Ozon’s 8 Women or Olivier Assayas’ Les Destinées Sentimentales, but at the same time the depths she can bring to such a broadly defined character are astonishing – emotional, expressive and explosive, never falling into old routines or mannerisms. With Catherine Frot there is a delightful charm. Again, it’s not a role that is particularly going to stretch her and she might not have the qualities for the more physical comedy, but she has a wonderful cartoon face and brings an honest charm to the character without overplaying the kookiness. And best of all, there is genuine chemistry between these two great actresses.
Although there has not yet been a theatrical release of Les Soeurs Fâchées in the UK or US, the Region 2 French DVD is now available from Studio Canal, and it has English subtitles.
You would expect a high quality release from Studio Canal for a recent film and that’s exactly what you get. The transfer is gorgeous – crystal clear, sharp, well toned colours (possibly a little on the cool side), with solid blacks and excellent detail in darkened rooms. If I’m being ultra-picky, there is a hint of edge enhancement and bright objects cause faint trails in dark scenes – but you’d really have to examine the image in freeze-frame to notice this. I saw only one or two instances of minor background shimmering on objects, but in the main the image is solid and stable.
The film comes with the choice of French Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1, neither of which stands out as better than the other, but both are strong and more than adequate. The 5.1 mix rarely uses anything but the centre speaker.
The feature has optional English or French hard of hearing subtitles. The English subtitles read exceptionally well, in an appropriately sized white font with a strong border. Extra features contain French hard of hearing subtitles only.
A Making of feature is broken down into three parts. Mercredi… Louise (8:45), takes a look at one working day on the film from Catherine Frot’s perspective from getting to the location in the morning, sitting through make-up and shooting the final train-station scene. Catherine Frot narrates herself, giving her perspective on her character and her working methods. Jeudi… Martine (7:53) follows Isabelle Huppert for the day of shooting the art gallery scene. She narrates, talking about her character, her relationship with Catherine and, as usual, is quite analytical and philosophical about the whole acting experience. In Vendredi… Alexandra (8:33), the director talks about working on the script and how she got people interested in making the film. She is seen walking through the dialogue and shooting a scene between Martine and Louise. The Teasers (3:21) section shows the full-length trailer and two teasers, which are good, though the film’s darkly comic tone is difficult to get across in trailer format.
Although the plot may not be the most sophisticated, the actors and the script bring a certain depth to proceedings and first-time director Leclère knows just how far to push the comic routines while pushing the dramatic tension a little further than would be expected from this kind of comedy. The result is a thoroughly charming, funny and blackly entertaining film. Studio Canal’s French Region 2 DVD does not disappoint, with a fine transfer, optional English subtitles and interesting extra features. I’m surprised that this film seems to have been overlooked as far as getting a UK release, so this DVD is certainly worth picking up.