His movies for grown-ups may be ponderous — who can forget Brad Pitt sleepwalking through Seven Years in Tibet? — but French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud makes movies for children that are vibrant, even dangerous. His 1988 film The Bear featured a nearly all-animal cast engaged in telling a story that pulsed with sex and death. Predictably, it appalled the kind of parents who prefer that their children don’t see animals acting like animals — the kind of denial that makes tormenting tigers on a Las Vegas stage for the bemusement of the fanny-pack set seem like a good idea. In his new film, Two Brothers, Annaud shifts from bears to tigers (next up, maybe lions, oh my). With the help this time of a larger cast of humans, Annaud presents a meticulously structured fable about the importance of family, particularly the relationship of fathers and sons, to both man and beast.
Kumal and Sangha are the brothers of the title, tiger cubs at play in the lush green forests of French colonial Indochina. Their idyllic childhood is shattered by McRory (Guy Pearce), a hunter who comes upon Kumal and his father while looting overgrown temples for their statues. McRory kills the older tiger when he attacks a porter, and the bucolic lives of the cubs are thrown into chaos. Kumal, the bolder feline brother, is sold to the circus as the replacement for a bedraggled old tiger whose hide is more valuable than his life. The meeker Sangha is adopted briefly by a French colonialist’s son, Raoul (Freddie Highmore), and then given to a despot (Oanh Nguyen), who conditions the tiger to be a killer.
Although McRory is essentially the guy who kills Bambi’s mother, his function in Two Brothers, unlike that of Disney’s anonymous hit man, is as more than just the traumatizer of generations of small children. Directly or not, McRory is the catalyst for all of the movie’s subsequent action — the capture of the cubs, the death of Kumal’s predecessor at the circus, and the two brothers’ fate when reunited in a cruel gladiatorial contest. Normally this would make McRory the villain, but he is also seen as a kindly surrogate father for the tiger Kumal and for the boy Raoul. The animal without a father becomes the metaphorical brother for a child whose father is a disappointment. Pearce’s performance walks a delicate line between confident and uncertain, virile and sensitive. In the most heartbreaking and mature scene, McRory explains to Raoul that the boy’s beloved tiger may be doomed by the child’s own good intentions.
If Annaud’s characterization of McRory is given to ethical abstractions, his depiction of the abuse of the tigers is visceral. Annaud doesn’t flinch in his outrage at the tigers’ plight, as they are penned in tiny cages, whipped and beaten, chained and starved. Long stretches in Two Brothers are difficult to watch, and the difficulty is compounded by the troubling reality that the tigers playing out the tragedy of wild things broken by captivity are themselves wild things broken by captivity.
It’s a paradox that nettles Annaud, who clearly fears coming across as another animal-exploiting Siegfried or Roy. He addresses the issue through McRory, who rationalizes that the best way to spark interest in the preservation of hidden objects and beasts is through their capture and display. Even the French colonialist (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), who wants to cut a path through Indochina’s sacred jungle, claims he’s doing so to encourage a tourism trade that will deter the desecration of its ruins. There is, of course, something self-serving about the argument that the best way to save the animals is to harvest them for our entertainment. Annaud seems partly aware of this, and his uncertainty infuses Two Brothers with the problem of its own existence. Like the horrific mustang roundup that ends John Huston’s The Misfits, the animals’ fear is real and presents an ethical quagmire.
Still, Two Brothers is a rarity: an overtly political picture that appeals to common sense, and to fairness — to tigers and hunters alike. It is a children’s film made by a man who no doubt prefers the unsweetened versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Although the dialogue occasionally falters under the weight of its PETA piety, this is awkwardness more than balanced by scenes that speak eloquently to old-fashioned ideas of love, loyalty and decency — values more nutritional than anything kids could derive from a computer-animated Garfield singing a James Brown song.
Father and Son is another story of, well, fathers and sons. It opens with intimate shots of tangled bodies. A father (Andrei Shchetinin) is trying to wrestle his teenage boy (Aleksei Nejmyshev) away from a nightmare of being lost in a wilderness. With all the heavy breathing, shirtless flesh and well-muscled straining, you might think you were watching a particularly racy coming-out film from Sundance. But this is a movie by Alexander Sokurov, the visionary Russian director (best known since 2002 for his one-take art-house stunt Russian Ark) who had a meltdown at last year’s Cannes Film Festival over the Western decadence that would reduce his film to merely homoerotic. For Sokurov, the relationship between a father and a son surpasses physical, even human intimacy — it’s something approaching the sacred.
The son is a young recruit; the father is a veteran. The war that dare not speak its name in the Russian mind is Afghanistan, or perhaps Chechnya, and the way Sokurov approaches his narrative is just as ambiguous. Like a good visionary, he doesn’t present the action straightforwardly. Rather, the story plays out like a series of short films that begins with the son’s nightmare and culminates in a scene where the father acts out a variation of the same dream. The nightmare, a premonition of separation and loneliness, thus becomes the framework for the entire film. It is the threat of divorce in the father-son relationship that colors every moment of Father and Son with an oppressive pall.
Father and Son is the second film in a proposed trilogy, beginning with the hallucinatory Mother and Son (1997) and ending with Two Brothers and a Sister. When completed, the trilogy promises to be high-minded and obscure, marked by Sokurov’s desire to balance religion and style in his examination of primal family relationships. Profoundly serious, some would say self-serious, Sokurov puts the same premium on images over narrative as his Russian predecessor Andrei Tarkovsky. Never one to allow frivolity to creep into his movies — you sense he thinks that laughter is a kind of cosmic violation — Sokurov strives in his films for atmospheres of hushed sanctimony.
He suffuses Father and Son with a muted light. The colors are soft, the emotions are subdued and the pace is languid, and all the while the emotions of the piece pulse in and out like submerged things coming to light, or visions in a trance. The film takes on the seductive cadence of a religious hymn. At others, Father and Son inspires like the wise, rapturous poetry of John Donne, who managed to equate the sublimations of the soul with the delights of the flesh. The characters wrestle with the ideal of a father’s love that crucifies his son and a loving son who submits himself to crucifixion, and at times, it feels as though Sokurov means for the experience of his movie to be worn as a flagellant’s hair shirt. The tragedy that unfolds in the film is that a father must martyr himself to his son’s need to supplant him, lest his love jeopardize his son’s growth. Sokurov suggests that a father’s love ends in sacrifice, a son’s in self-interest. Father and Son, in its airless, sometimes suffocating way, is his ode to the courage of fathers and sons who surrender, as they must, to the fates that divide them.
TWO BROTHERS | Directed by JEAN-JACQUES ANNAUD | Written by ALAIN GODARD and ANNAUD | Produced by ANNAUD and JAKE EBERTS | Released by Universal Pictures | Citywide
FATHER AND SON | Directed by ALEXANDER SOKUROV | Written by SERGEI POTEPALOV | Produced by IGOR KALYONOV and THOMAS KUFUS | Released by Wellspring Media | At the Nuart