Half-Sister (Demi-soeur)

France (2013) Dir. Josiane Balasko

Antoinette “Nénette” Novack (Josiane Balasko) is a sixty-year old woman with the mental age of an eight year-old, forced to live in a care home after the death of her mother and carer. While looking through a box of her mother’s belongings Nénette finds a letter with a photograph of the father she never knew. Following the address on the envelope Nénette heads off with her pet tortoise Tootie to search for her father. Instead she finds grouchy pharmacist Paul Bérard (Michel Blanc) who turns out to be her half brother, with Nénette being the result of an affair. Paul is naturally thrown by the arrival of his chaos causing half-sister but a simple mistake with his morning coffee changes everything.

This touching comedy drama about family ties comes to us from French writer-actress and occasional director Josiane Balasko, who has a career spanning forty years. While she wears many hats on the production side of things Half-Sister doesn’t feel like a vanity project, instead the product of someone merely wishing to tell a story and entertain the audience. This apparent lack of ego permeates through the film itself as Balasko allows everyone in the film to have a moment to shine rather than make herself the centre of attention, which is ironic she that is exactly where Nénette is, at the centre of the everything!

Refusing to be without Tootie, Nénette is immediately frustrated by her new lodgings rule of no pets, so she decides to look for her father and wanders off to Angers, the address on the envelope. She gets distracted by a rabbit when she stops off a little roadside rest and ends up walking all day until she happens upon a late night rave hosted by a punk rock band called Black Iron Bitch. Scared by painted face lead “singer” Too Much (Sarah Suco), Nénette finds solace with hairy biker Silver (George Aguilar), who calms her down and introduces her to the band.  Nénette is later dropped off at the pharmacy which Paul runs, her face painted like Paul Stanley from KISS, shocking Paul, his assistant Françoise (Françoise Lépine) and others in the shop.

The shock of learning father is dead is soon replaced by the joy of having a brother, although the uptight Paul is less enthused, taking Nénette to a hotel to get her out of his hair. Nénette has other ideas and goes for a walk, once again bumping into Black Iron Bitch and causing a fight during the performance. When the police arrive Too Much asks Nénette to look after some “sweeteners” for her. Having been taken back to Paul’s (after flooding the hotel) Nénette makes her grumpy brother some coffee with the “sweeteners” replacing sugar. Paul suddenly gradually develops a more light hearted personality, bonding with his new found sister on her level while enjoying some new experiences along the way, until one too many sets the siblings off along a more troubled path.

At the risk of making an ill-advised comparison Nénette seems to wander absent-mindedly from catastrophe to catastrophe leaving a trail of destruction behind her similar to Mr. Bean. Perhaps not as destructive as Mr. Bean but there is a comic aura about this film that is reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson’s feckless creation. However let’s not be under any illusion that Nénette is an intended figure of fun – quite the opposite in fact. While she is played with an acute comic awareness the idea is clearly to laugh with Nénette rather than at her. She also cuts a sympathetic figure but a somewhat liberating one as she is able to drift from one situation to another and land on her feet every time without a care for things like consequence and responsibility.

While the story builds up as a light comedy of manners and errors for the most part, the final act is a serious affair but the tonal shift is not jarring in any way. Balasko skilfully makes this temporary transition a smooth one that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the story or the credibility of the characters. The central theme of family isn’t introduced until the second act when Nénette and Paul go on their impromptu day out, resulting in the meeting with Paul’s estranged son Maxime (Grégoire Baujat) and his young daughter Lilac (Cléo and Madeleine Revel).

This gives the film its emotional base to trigger the events of the final act but isn’t developed enough to have a deeper effect, feeling thrown in as a convenient plot device to expediate Paul’s eventual change of heart towards his sister. With a runtime of 85 minutes there was plenty of room to extend it to explore this development further and make it a more prominent facet of the plot; perhaps Balasko didn’t want her story to be bogged down by too much dour material after so much light mirth. It remains a small cavil but doesn’t spoil one’s enjoyment of the film too much unless you allow it too. To Balasko’s credit she manages to successfully contain the whole journey of Nénette and Paul in this short time so to complain seems churlish.

Even with the directing and writing duties Balasko delivers a captivating and charming performance making Nénette a real and endearing character, ensuring the depiction of her mental handicap is not overplayed or exploitative. As grouchy half brother Paul, Michel Blanc is a whirlwind of begrudging energy, at first appearing like a farcical caricature but slowly becoming more human as the relationship develops. The chemistry between the two is joyous and convincingly syncopated.

Falling just a little short of a complete emotional wallop due to its brisk runtime , Half-Sister is still a delightfully warm and cuddly little film that reminds us we are all human beings in need of some family affection, which can be brought out from the most unlikely of sources. An adorable little French treat.