Review Special: The 2019 French Film Festival of Australia – Advanced screening of The Sisters Brothers

The 2019 French Film Festival of Australia is in its 30th year now. It is the largest film festival dedicated to French cinema in the world and is presented by the Alliance Française of Australia. The festival will screen French films across many Luna Palace Cinemas in Perth from mid-March to mid-April, as well as concurrent screenings and events in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Hobart, Adelaide, Avoca Beach and Parramatta. If you happen to be in any of these Australian cities or towns over the coming months, make sure you get out and check out some of these films.


Momentary Cinema was very privileged to have been invited to an advanced screening of Jacques Audiard’s hotly-tipped Western The Sisters Brothers (reviewed below) as part of the festival in Perth. The program is jam-packed with an array of great French films – comedies, dramas, thrillers, horrors, films for the family and lots of documentaries. And there are plenty of recognisable stars too. The festival will open with The Trouble With You, a French Riviera-set comedy starring Adele Haenel (Beats per Minute) and Audrey Tautou (Amelie), which was a big hit at Cannes last year. Another Cannes hit, Sink or Swim, stars Mathieu Amalric and Jean Hugues Anglade as part of a team of male synchronised swimmers trying to deal with midlife crises – I assume it will be much better than its limp British counterpart from last year, Swimming with Men. Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet will lend their considerable acting chops in a new drama film by Oliver Assayas (Personal Shopper) called Non-Fiction. The great Jean-Luc Godard, now in his late 80s, is still making imaginative films and his latest, The Image Book, presents an experimental sound and image collage about our existence. Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church will be on the agenda in serial provocateur François Ozon’s By the Grace of God. The legendary Catherine Deneuve stars as a reclusive millionaire in a subtle and thought-provoking film called Claire Darling. Giants of contemporary French cinema, Isabelle Adjani and Vincent Cassel, star in a homage to Tarantino and Guy Ritchie in The World Is Yours. The Oscar winner Jean Dujardin (The Artist) stars in a quirky anti-capitalist comedy, I Feel Good. Vanessa Paradis stars in the kinky and hyper-stylised thriller Knife+Heart. And Juliette Binoche shows up again in a psychological thriller about jealousy and revenge called Who Do You Think I Am.

There is also a true story set in the south of France in the late 19th century called The Ideal Palace, and it concerns a humble postman who ends up building a castle for his daughter. There are also interesting documentaries on Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, ethical wine making (Wine Calling) and the annual folk dancing festival of Gennetines (La Grand Bal). International cross-productions (such as The Sister Brothers) will also be shown – High Life, a new science fiction horror by the awesome Claire Denis (Beau Travail) stars Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson; Quebecois director Denys Arcand (The Barbarian Invasions) lends his ideas of satire and socialism in the provocatively titled The Fall of the American Empire; and Girls of the Sun concerns the unacknowledged fight taken to ISIS by Kurdish female warriors in the Middle East. A 35mm print restoration of the 1960s surrealist masterpiece by Alan Resnais, Last Year at Marienbad, will also be shown at the festival. Finally, Carole Bouquet and Charlotte Rampling will lead up a strong cast in the screwball comedy Kiss and Tell, which as a critical and audience hit in France from last year will appropriately close the festival.

This is an extraordinary collection of films coming to Australia. French films have always been at the cutting edge of World Cinema, and this festival is a gift to Australian cinema-goers who enjoy quality features with a range rarely matched by Hollywood. Full program here.


The Sisters Brothers (2018, Annapurna Pictures)
Directed by Jacques Audiard. Based on a novel of the same name by Patrick deWitt. Featuring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed and Rutger Hauer.


Review 1 by JJ McDermott

Audiard brings us a beautifully photographed film that ably compliments the darkly comic historical novel by Patrick duWitt, which in itself takes inspiration from actual events recorded about the California Gold Rush between 1848 and 1855. So, the sub-title ‘based on a true story’ does not exactly apply here. But that doesn’t really matter. Actual events need not get in the way of a good story all the time! The Sisters Brothers pays homage to the spirit of the Hollywood Western of yesteryear. Indeed, it is not the first film to do that – the field of films from the past two decades is pocketed with them. But there is a uniqueness captured here, and Audiard fundamentally plays his story out as a part-adventure caper, part-dark comedy, and part-period drama. Despite some obvious shortcomings, it all blends together quite well. Reilly and Phoenix play ‘notorious’ assassin brothers sent by a wealthy man called the Commodore (Hauer) to pursue a man name Herman Warm (Ahmed) who is travelling from Oregon to San Francisco in search of gold. Warm is being tracked by the Commodore’s scout (Gyllenhaal) and it becomes clear that his targeted status relates to a scientific idea that he harbours.


Scenes of the Wild West are stunningly presented by cinematographer Benoit Debie. The interplay between Reilly and Phoenix’s characters is neatly pitched with both actors giving sterling performances. British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed manages the role of an earnest American gold-seeker very well. The humour is unexpected but a welcome relief to the sometimes grisly and sleazy undertones. The violence is never overwhelming but it is brutal and can be very effecting at times. The story splits off in unexpected directions, which can be reflective and thought-provoking. But it sometimes ends up in a half-way house between something poignant and something silly. This unfortunately holds the film back from becoming anything truly special. But I liked it and I think it is a worthwhile modern interpretation of the all-American Western…aptly directed by a Frenchman.

JJ’s Rating: 3.5/5



Review 2 by Robin Stevens

Eli Sisters (Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Phoenix) are the Sisters Brothers, travelling way out West (Oregon) on a contract job in the early 1850s. They are in league with John Morris (Gyllenhaal), a detective come bounty hunter, to find and deliver gold-scientist Hermann Kermit Warm (Ahmed). They don’t know why, but they are being paid big money by a powerful entrepreneur. These four lead characters are all a little more complex than the usual Western misfits common to many Hollywood films. And that leads to an intricate set of interplays, which are at times dark, occasionally comic, and even emotionally sensitive. It’s one of the features that distinguishes this ‘French-take’ on an American Western. This is director Jacques Audiard’s first English-speaking film. And true to many a French director, he pays attention to detail. The landscape is not some blank backdrop of sand and cactus, and a horse kicking up dust in a chase. No, it is splendid and it adds atmosphere. The detail is so beautiful. And the violence too is more detailed, bringing a gritty but gory realism to the brutality of murder and betrayal on the frontier. It is not glorified violence, it is just in-your-face so you know that a gunshot is pretty damn awful (note: this is not a film for kids!).


Although it is a dark-comic ‘Western’, it really crosses into a period drama, and almost a classic tragedy. Masculinity is fragile, the wilderness is beautiful, and men are ugly. Audiard brings a sensitivity to his characters, stripping away frontier stereotypes and replacing them with a messed-up collection of flawed individuals. The characters are genuinely interesting. As one might expect from this A-class ensemble cast, the acting is seriously good. Cinematography and sound in particular are top notch. So is the editing, although a bit of ‘snip, snip’ on the ending would have been helpful. I generally liked this take on a Western. It has more personality, more complexity, greater sensitivity, and the dialogue is more interesting. One actually cares what becomes of each of the lead characters. Goodies and baddies seem to give way to something with a little more depth. This is an interesting film worth going to the cinema to see.

Robin’s Rating: 3.5/5

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