Film Review: Demi-Soeur

Sweet trifle of a comedy about a mentally challenged spinster who escapes her rest home with her beloved tortoise to connect with a long-lost but unwilling half-brother. Vet French stars Josiane Balasko and Michel Blanc make all this watchable, especia

As a comedienne, actor, director and writer, Josiane Balasko has had a long and storied career in film (notably the Bronzés comedies, Golden Globe winner French Twist and her remarkable dramatic turn in the shamefully underseen The Hedgehog). Her Demi-Soeur co-star Michel Blanc shares a similar background, renown and countless film credits, including Patrice Leconte’s quirky Monsieur Hire. In this two-hander, they embody lost souls who butt heads before bonding. Nothing new in that, but the performances, low-key plot and provincial locales afford freshness.

Demi-Soeur has so clean and clear an arc that it takes no imagination to see where it’s all going. But so what? Nice is a nice change for a change, especially these days. And loyal French film fans will take as happy—if not as eventful—a journey as Nénette, Balasko’s clueless and oft-cheerful half-sister and halfwit heroine.

In Balasko’s simple story, Nénette mourns her mother’s death and her own subsequent placement in an old-age home. Relocated to the facility with her beloved tortoise Tootie, she longs to escape to find her lost father. Managing to break free, she and Tootie embark upon that familiar road-trip movie trope that leads to many adventures in the provinces.

Nénette gets lost, loses her suitcase, wanders along country roads and through a forest, where she encounters animals and a loud and raucous rave/happening. The band Black Iron Bitches and screaming lead vocalist Too Much (Sarah Suco) perform, delivering the raw metal rock their name implies. Too Much and Silver (George Aguilar), a hanger-on in the band’s retinue, become protective of Nénette. A later encounter when an unexpected police raid forces the band to hide their stash of Ecstasy pills in Nénette’s bag (unbeknownst to her, of course) will create further complications.

Arrived in the small town’s pharmacy, Nénette meets Paul (Blanc), the uptight owner-pharmacist who lives a very controlled life in a modest apartment above his business. He informs Nénette that the father they shared is dead (each had different mothers) and predictably doesn’t take well to this newly discovered, needy half-sister with a tortoise in tow. He offers her temporary lodging in his quarters above but is determined to place her on a train that will take her back to the rest home.

Nénette, preferring to stay put but placed on the train, misses her station and arrives back at Paul’s digs. Growing ever more disgruntled with this unwanted visitor, he settles her into a hotel, but the flood she causes makes her persona non grata there.

Paul—a control freak set in his prissy ways—is stuck with her again. But decent at heart, he provides temporary asylum in his apartment through which classical music plays and well-attended aquariums for his snail collection abound.

A big twist sets the siblings on another road trip and voyage of rediscovery after Nénette mistakenly drops Ecstasy pills into the coffee Paul has asked her to fetch. Paul’s quickly becomes an outgoing, giddy, giggly, generous, reckless idiot. The siblings gaily take side trips to the seashore and visit the lovely but troubled home of Paul’s ex-wife Véronique (Brigitte Roüan) and her family. Other plot turns emerge, including usual taskmaster Paul acting princely toward his overworked shop assistant Françoise (Françoise Lépine), reconnecting with his estranged son Maxime (Grégoire Baujat), and crashing down to reality after the Ecstasy wears off.

Balasko could have run into trouble with her handling of the oh-so-slow and challenged Nénette, but, wearing three hats as writer/director/star, she fully endows the character with much sweetness and humanity. Demi-Soeur also reveals that Balasko is sweet on animals.