To say at this point that Isabelle Huppert is the best thing about any film featuring Isabelle Huppert is tantamount to saying that chocolate chips are the standout in a chocolate chip cookie. This self-evident truth applies to “Barrage,” though most of Laura Schroeder’s triple-tiered mother-daughter study needs to get by without her. Get by it just about does, thanks to a thoughtful, wounded leading turn by Huppert’s own daughter, Lolita Chammah, as a recovering addict mending bridges with her estranged kid (Thémis Pauwels) and her mistrustful mom (Huppert). But after a taut, flinty opening that sees Huppert and Chammah sparring to quietly heart-ripping effect, the air trickles out of this sensitive but cliché-laced drama, as the younger mother and daughter head into the wilderness for some fraught, dramatically repetitive healing. Sharp lensing and angular performance details compensate for an errant script that feels a draft or two away from completion; in her sophomore feature, Schroeder’s directorial eye promises bigger visions to come.
“Barrage” in this context refers to a flood-preventing barrier built across a body of water, the symbolic implications of which the viewer is left to draw for themselves — though fragile, depressive 30-something Catherine (Chammah) seems like a woman herself on the verge of overflow. After 10 years away, for reasons that are gradually filled in by Schroeder and co-writer Marie Nimier, she returns home to Luxembourg, where her now 12-year-old daughter Alba has been raised by Catherine’s divorced mother Elisabeth. Having rebuilt some semblance of independent life and secured an apartment, with help from her more openly sympathetic dad (Charles Muller), Catherine is ready to reconnect with Alba. In a beautifully blocked and cut opening scene, she spies on her daughter at the youth tennis club where Elisabeth rather too rigorously coaches her — the dull thwocking of balls and rushing of feet evidently triggering unhappy memories of her own similar upbringing.
Ever the master of passive-aggressive tension, Huppert brilliantly etches a simultaneous history of caring and control in her body language, also making light work of barbed line readings: “You look well for a change,” she observes thinly when Catherine turns up unannounced on her doorstep for some unrequested quality time with Alba. Casting Huppert opposite her real-life daughter was an inspired ploy on Schroeder’s part: The two previously collaborated to winning effect in the 2010 comedy “Copacabana,” but their connection is more complex here, while there’s a certain fascination in watching the two actresses reflect each other in ways both deliberate and unconscious. The great cinematographer Hélène Louvart, whose clean-lined Academy-ratio compositions bring a certain New Wave texture to proceedings, seems struck by the resemblance, going so far as to give Huppert and Chammah coordinating profile shots at one point.
Casting isn’t the only reason, however, that the dynamic between Catherine and Elisabeth is more persuasively fractious than Catherine and Alba’s still-unformed relationship. Once Catherine, granted permission to take her daughter out on a day trip to the zoo, decides to effectively kidnap the girl, the script’s credibility takes a series of knocks: Whisking Alba off to the family’s long-abandoned holiday chalet in the woods, she rashly decides to quit her antidepressants, with predictably unhinged consequences. Meanwhile, despite young Pauwels’ stern, stoic focus in the role, Alba’s pinballing reactions — petulantly resistant one minute, complicit the next — to her mother’s increasingly irrational behavior don’t ring entirely true, which makes their gradual mutual understanding feel less hard-earned than it should.
The bulk of “Barrage” plays out as a tetchy two-hander between them, offering some lovely interludes — a goofy mirror-image dance sequence to The Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down” sweetly positions both mother and daughter as the assurance-seeking girls they are — and others that simply extend the questionable abduction scenario through mere contrivance. A luridly lit, elaborately staged nightmare sequence that collates a variety of Catherine’s childhood traumas, meanwhile, provides some stark tonal variation.
It’s finally the endearing Chammah, a more pliably vulnerable screen presence than Huppert was even in her “Lacemaker” days, who has to knit this wobbly middle stretch together, and she plays even her character’s least credible decisions with gentle conviction, occasional streaks of more pained, ironic wit peeking through. “Leave it, it won’t fall any lower,” she instructs her daughter when a grotesque mounted boar’s head falls from the chalet’s gaudily decorated wall, her tone turning brisk and thorny when at the end of her tether. You can imagine her mother watching off-camera and cracking a proud smile.