One might think, given the experience and talent of those involved, that someone would have noticed that “Demi-soeur” was a recipe for disaster: A comedy about a mentally disabled person, while not necessarily a bad idea, is extremely tricky territory. Unfortunately, French actress-writer-director Josiane Balasko plunges in with all the finesse of a hopped-up Pollyanna, her simplistic interpretation of an impaired sexagenarian coming close to outright parody; vet comic thesp Michel Blanc’s Ecstasy-fueled transformation from raging misanthrope to beaming softie equally fails to convince. The outlook is dismal for this Rialto release, voted one of 2013’s worst films by Premiere.
Her mother having died recently, Nenette (Balasko, in a short gray bob and shapeless dress) has nowhere to go but a nursing home. Once ensconced there, however, she learns she cannot keep her best friend and pet tortoise, Totoche,” with her. She packs up and leaves, unnoticed. Setting out on foot to find the father she never knew, she becomes distracted by a rabbit and gets lost in the woods, there encountering a heavy metal group, the Iron Bitches, who befriend her and take her to her destination. As it turns out, her father is dead, and her half-brother, Paul (Blanc), a disagreeable pharmacist with nary a kind word for anyone, reacts with horror to her effusive sisterly joy and tries to send her back from whence she came.
But a series of misadventures lands Nenette back in Paul’s apartment the next morning, her half-brother a new man after drinking the coffee that Nenette has unknowingly laced with Ecstasy. Mindlessly blissed out, he and Nenette embark on a journey to the sea to return his prized collection of hermit crabs to their natural habitat; along the way, Paul spreads love and hugs to his estranged son (Gregoire Baujat) and divorced wife (Brigitte Rouan), much to their puzzled consternation. Further developments find Paul ping-ponging from generosity to nastiness and back again, with little mediation between extremes, en route to living happily ever after with his beloved half-sister.
Balasko, a highly respected actress (“French Twist,” “The Hedgehog”) with several directed films under her belt, seemingly went off the rails with this one. Her usual deliberate avoidance of niceties in gruff, strong-minded roles proves sadly misplaced here as she swings from unbridled affection to quivering-lipped hurt, with nothing in between.