Colette + The Sisters Brothers: The Variable Effects of Tonal Inconsistency

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.

Colette: ** ½
The Sisters Brothers: ****

Two recent films both had the misfortune of being tagged as “tonally uneven” by a number of publications.[1] The first, Wash Westmoreland’s Colette, is a biopic of Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), a fin de siècle Frenchwoman who ghostwrote novels for her husband Willy (Dominic West). In Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, on the other hand, two sibling assassins, Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix), are ordered to track down and kill a prospector (Riz Ahmed) during the California Gold Rush.

Even though both Colette and Sisters can be described as tonally inconsistent, this condition doesn’t affect the two films in the same way. In the former, such inconsistency muddies the narrative’s treatment of its subject matter, engendering contradictory ideas that render the film thematically incoherent. In the latter, however, tonally contrasting elements serve as two sides of the same coin, forming a complementary pairing that ultimately helps to advance the narrative’s larger thematic aims.

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street.

In order to better appreciate why each of these films “works” or “doesn’t work,” we should first try to understand what makes them “tonally uneven” in the first place. To start, Colette’s tonal inconsistency arises from the disparities between the two narratives it encompasses. On the one hand, parts of it play like a black-and-white melodrama about marriage’s evils. In these portions of the film, Willy is portrayed as an oppressive, unfeeling tyrant, while Colette is depicted as his unwilling subordinate. And as you might expect, the conflict in the narrative stems from the latter’s attempts to liberate herself from the former.

In contrast to this harsh narrative, however, other parts of Colette stand as a more freewheeling depiction of sexual culture in fin de siècle Paris. Colette ends up having extramarital affairs with both women and men – all, believe it or not, with Willy’s enthusiastic approval. Additionally, she becomes a dancer at the Moulin Rouge, a “scandalous,” “vulgar” undertaking that Willy also endorses. Far from focusing on the cruelty of marriage, these portions of the narrative explore the emotional and sexual liberties that Frenchwomen, particularly queer ones, were sometimes able to obtain in the late 19th century. Most interestingly, as we see, they obtained said liberties in a society that generally still clung to conservative conceptions of marriage and love.

Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

Sisters’ tonal inconsistencies, meanwhile, stem from the alternately brutal and silly nature of the on-screen action. Sometimes, on the one hand, Charlie and Eli are shown doing what hitmen are supposed to do, and at one point, we also watch Charlie undergo a painful surgery. Yet in between these grisly killings and medical operations, the Sisters find themselves engaged in pathetically mundane struggles. They squabble over the meaning of “victimized,” get embarrassingly drunk at bars, and become sick after swallowing spiders in their sleep. These scenes carry a levity that wouldn’t be out of place in an awkward buddy comedy – and needless to say, such humor is at variance with the darker, grittier mood of other parts of the film.

Both Colette and Sisters, then, contain tonally disparate elements. But it’s only in the former that such inconsistency proves a hindrance. The reason is that the contrasting narratives in Colette espouse fundamentally contradictory outlooks on marriage. In the “black-and-white” portions of the film, marriage is portrayed as an unqualifiedly bad institution in which women enjoy next to no freedom. In the “exploration of sexuality” portions of the film, however, marriage has redeeming facets, seeing as it doesn’t frustrate Colette’s attempts to acquire a number of sexual privileges. In this way, the two parts of Colette advance divergent evaluations of marriage’s worth, and since Westmoreland never tries to reconcile them, the resulting film feels disappointingly muddled.

Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

When it comes to Sisters, on the other hand, the combination of comedy and violence could easily have backfired on Audiard. But to understand why that turns out not to be the case, you first have to appreciate one of the overarching goals of the film’s violent sequences: demythifying the West. Traditionally, most Westerns feature dramatic, well-choreographed showdowns between noble heroes and villains who epitomize evil. In Sisters, however, the shoot-outs are typically shot from a distance, messily edited, or set to dark lighting – stylistic choices that both de-glorify the confrontations in question and emphasize the futility of the violence involved. Additionally, instead of acting out of a desire to “do good,” the characters in Sisters fight because they want gold, a petty aim that underscores the amoral, survival-of-the-fittest nature of life in the actual West.

As it turns out, the funny parts of Sisters contribute to this demythification as well. Charlie and Eli are gunfighters, a profession traditionally associated with heroic, godlike figures like Shane and Will Kane. But whether it involves trivial arguments or bumbling experiments with toothbrushes, Sisters’ comedy makes Charlie and Eli appear decidedly mortal, portraying them as inept and flawed beings whose shooting prowess almost feels like a fluke. The film’s humor, in that sense, ensures that we see these gunslingers as ordinary humans instead of invincible, awe-inspiring heroes. This not only “completes” Audiard’s subversion of Western tropes, but it also lends Sisters a surprising poignancy: two people like Charlie and Eli are anything but equipped for survival in Audiard’s cruel, avarice-laden vision of the West.

In closing, it’s worth noting just how many strengths Colette and Sisters share. Both films feature outstanding performances, particularly from Knightley (Colette) and Reilly (Sisters). Moreover, both works also contain subversive elements. In Colette, the conventionally romantic score and smooth cinematography provide an ironic counterpoint to Colette’s transgressive embrace of queerness. And as mentioned, Audiard’s revisionist take on the West makes Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) look almost banal. Given these similarities, then, the marked difference in quality between the two films undeniably has at least something to do with the way each handles its tonally divergent components. Such inconsistency may not be the automatic disqualifier that some make it out to be. But if you don’t know how to use it well, it certainly can do quite a bit of harm.

Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.

***

Colette (2018) The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Starring: Keira Knightley
Dominic West
John C. Reilly
Joaquin Phoenix
Jake Gyllenhaal
Riz Ahmed
Running Time: 111 minutes 121 minutes
MPAA Rating: R R
Produced by: Elizabeth Karlsen
Pamela Koffler
Michel Litvak
Christine Vachon
John C. Reilly
Pascal Caucheteux
Michael De Luca
Alison Dickey
Megan Ellison
Michel Merkt
Cristian Mungiu
Grégoire Sorlat
Written by: Wash Westmoreland
Richard Glatzer
Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Jacques Audiard
Thomas Bidegain
Based on: N/A Patrick deWitt’s 2011 novel of the same name.
Directed by: Wash Westmoreland Jacques Audiard

[1]: Examples of such reviews can be found at The A.V. Club (Colette), Consequence of Sound (Sisters Brothers), and The Christian Science Monitor (also Sisters Brothers).