Monia Chokri knocks it out of the park with her debut feature

Known for her acting roles, the Montreal-based filmmaker’s first feature La femme de mon frère is bright, confident and hilarious.

It’s lazy, but we’re all drawn to do it. When an actor steps out into directing, we want to assign the style and qualities of the filmmakers they like to work with to their new work. Sometimes, it’s painfully obvious: Confessions of a Dangeous Mind is based on a Charlie Kaufman script but it feels preciously Coen-esque. Sometimes, it makes no sense at all; who would imagine that the only movie Schwarzenegger ever direct was a cheesy made-for-TV Christmas movie? Regardless, it seems like everyone assumed that Monia Chokri’s debut movie would be a chip off the block of the director that launched her career: Xavier Dolan.

In truth, they have a few things in common. They both have a fondness for idiosyncratic, retro needle-drops and colour-coordinated sets, but to compare La femme de mon frère to a body of work as specific as Dolan’s is a fairly pointless endeavor. Chokri’s directorial voice proves to be remarkably assured for a first feature, a complex comedic that weaves ideas of classical philosophy with broad millennial-skewering humour in a way that never feels pat or awkward. It’s the movie that Denys Arcand has been trying to make for the last thirty years — or, at least, the movie I wish he would try to get within a couple of miles of making. It’s also one of the better-calibrated debut features I’ve ever seen. In an area of film that tends to favour quantity over quality, it offers just enough.

Sophia (Anne-Élisabeth Bossé) has just finished her phD in philosophy; not the most in-demand or lucrative field on the best day, she finds herself losing the one available position to nepotism. Sofia lives (temporarily, she claims) with her brother Karim (Patrick Hivon), a philandering scoundrel who shares her worldview so closely that it soon becomes clear that he’s her only real friend. (The second closest person would be the nouveau-riche new mother played by Noémie Lépine-Blondeau in a terrifying heightened parody of dusted Outremont wine moms.)

Her life goes into an utter tailspin when she asks Karim to accompany her to get an abortion, only to discover that Karim has shacked up with her doctor (Évelyne Brochu), whose put-together perfection Sofia both revers and abhors. Now, she has to share Karim — and, in a particularly cruel twist of fate, share him with a sunny, put-together woman with apparently no sense of self-loathing and an overall sunny view of life.

There’s a style of movie (I hesitate to call it a genre) that all but bypassed Quebec, although it’s beginning to surface with shows like L’âge adulte and Trop: the arrested adolescence, 30-is-the-new-14 dramedy that resulted in the careers of Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham and the Duplass Brothers. It was called mumblecore then — now it’s called prestige TV, and neither of them are aesthetically that close to La femme de mon frère. (It’s perhaps closer to what Vincent Biron outlined when Prank was released, which he dubbed with the catchy moniker “mumblequeb”.) Nevertheless, so obsessed is Quebec cinema with boomers and teens that Chokri simply turning her camera on an average slice of thirtysomething malaise seems like a revelation.

If there’s any criticism that can be lobbied at the film, it’s perhaps that it’s structurally a little loose – not that much happens concretely, long dialogue scenes make up the bulk of the action and the screenplay underlines Sophia’s stasis by focusing on her not doing a whole hell of a lot. Chokri gets so much out of relatively little, however, that’s it’s hard to argue with the approach. It only takes a couple of scenes before she emerges with fully-formed, lived-in characters that are relatable without necessarily being likeable, but also sidestep the sort of arms-length pathetic display that these films sometimes put their characters is. Sofia’s journey is about figuring it out, something that’s profoundly and actively terrible at and that happens only in painstakingly small increments over the course of the movie – which, of course, can’t happen in three setpieces and a grand revelation standing in a fountain.

If the visuals tend to get a little showy and mannered at times (there’s a glass table at the parental home that Chokri seems positively enamored with, shooting scenes from above it, below it and even reflecting off it), La femme de mon frère is a bright, sunny and often hilarious film that wields the often-awkward limitations of a first feature like a weapon. Almost completely devoid of the navel-gazing that usually accompanies an actor’s debut (though the fact that Chokri doesn’t appear in it — or not really — probably helps), La femme de mon frère is a more than promising debut. ■

Read our interview with Chokri and Anne-Élisabeth Bossé here.

La femme de mon frère (A Brother’s Love) is in theatres Friday, June 7.

Watch the trailer here: