Brothers and Sisters in Berlin

Francine Bergé, Louis Garrel, and Aurelién Recoing in Philippe Garrel’s The Plough (2023)

Few major festivals differ as drastically across the board as the Berlinale and SXSW. The former, currently running through the weekend, flashes its political bent at every opportunity. “This festival in particular is—in a positive way—confrontational,” said jury president Kristen Stewart when the Berlinale opened last week. It’s a winter event staged in a cold and gray European city during the dourest month of the year. SXSW, opening next month, ushers spring into Austin and offers a slate of films that go down easy with tacos, BBQ, and lots and lots of live music.

There was, oddly enough, a distinctly SXSW vibe at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin during Saturday’s premiere of Dustin Guy Defa’s The Adults. Not unlike a few Austin venues, the Akademie’s theater comes off as a pleasantly competent upgrade of a high school auditorium. Defa’s first feature, Bad Fever (2011), premiered at SXSW, and he’s appeared in films by such Austin regulars as Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess) and Rick Alverson (Entertainment).

The Adults stars Michael Cera, Hannah Gross, and Sophia Lillis as a brother and two sisters whose mother passed away a few years ago. There’s a hint hanging in the heavy air that they also went through a few more rough episodes together before she died, and they’ve coped over the years by creating kooky characters with silly voices, writing drifty songs, and choreographing jazz-hands musical numbers. In short, the set-up teeters on the edge of tumbling into preciousness and the wrong kind of cringe, and when old resentments arise to threaten the bond, the danger only grows more imminent. Over and again, though, Defa and his three excellent leads expertly reel The Adults back from the brink.

After a screening of The Plough on Monday, Daniel Kasman suggested that, radical differences in tone aside, Philippe Garrel’s new film could easily be paired with The Adults, and Darren Hughes recalled that before he appeared in films by Truffaut, Rivette, and Chabrol, Garrel’s father, Maurice, was a puppeteer. He performed in Gaston Baty’s troupe alongside Alain Recoing, Philippe’s godfather, and Recoing’s son, Aurélien Recoing, plays the head of a family-run traveling puppet theater in The Plough. Philippe Garrel’s children, Louis, Esther, and Lena, play a brother and two sisters who struggle to keep the show on the road after their father collapses during a performance.

While The Adults remains squarely focused on the dynamic between its siblings, The Plough, less centered and more casually paced, tells several stories over a longer stretch of time. Francine Bergé is utterly winning as a vivacious grandmother recalling her days as a leftist in the 1960s, mending the puppets, and eventually succumbing to a frightfully rapid onset of dementia. Damien Mongin’s genial Pieter is an invaluable assistant who becomes a full-fledged member of the troupe before his obsessive commitment to his first love, painting, takes him to a very dark place.

Louis, who has had more than enough of puppeteering, starts taking roles in plays and quickly becomes a successful stage actor. (Let’s note here that The Innocent, the fourth feature Louis Garrel has directed, leads the nominations for the César Awards to be presented on Friday, and Janus Films will be bringing the film to U.S. theaters next month.) Running low on money, energy, and inspiration, Martha (Esther) and Lena forge ahead alone with their puppets—until a sign from the sky brings sweet relief.

Louis, Martha, and Lena rarely bicker or even disagree. Even beyond the emotional resonances of the back stories of everyone up on the screen, there is a love that permeates The Plough more saturating, more supportive, and more forgiving than in any of Garrel’s recent features. When Pieter leaves Hélène (Mathilde Weil), the mother of their newborn son, Louis’s concern soon evolves into an affair with Hélène, and Pieter couldn’t be happier for both of them. The Plough is a portrait of an enviably functional extended family.

Two more sisters mourning the loss of a parent need mentioning because Cidade Rabat, Portuguese director Susana Nobre’s remarkably restrained yet curiously engaging follow-up to Jack’s Ride (2021), seems to have been overlooked since its premiere in the Berlinale’s Forum program (The Plough is a main competition contender and The Adults premiered in the new competitive section, Encounters). Cidade Rabat opens with a tour of the stairwell inside the apartment building the speaker grew up in, and there are stories—memories, most of them good—behind each closed door.

In time, we learn that the speaker is Helena (Raquel Castro), a forty-year-old film producer dealing with a frustrated director, stretching every euro of a too-tight budget, and caring for both her ailing mother and the twelve-year-old daughter (played by Nobre’s own daughter) whose days are divvied up between Helena and her ex-husband. There is no goal Helena is striving toward and no single hurdle or antagonist in her way. One thing does not lead to another. Instead, events—the death of Helena’s mother, a cast party, a DUI charge, a single night with a long-term yet nomadic lover—take momentary precedence before the next one needs seeing to.

Helena and her sister aren’t estranged by any means, but they used to be closer. Cidade Rabat is not through-and-through melancholic, but it does convey how the absence of the sort of familial bonds depicted in The Adults and The Plough feels.

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