Actor-auteur Maïwenn bills herself last in the principal cast credits for “DNA,” adding the distinguishing curlicue of an “and” citation when her name eventually pops up on screen. On the one hand, it seems a courtesy to the formidable ensemble of her fifth feature as director, stacked as it is with stars from Fanny Ardant to Louis Garrel to Marine Vacth — all on fine, uninhibited form in a dysfunctional-family drama that frequently demands maximum volume from them. Yet the modesty seems coy in a film that eventually becomes a magnified, almost impenetrably personal star vehicle for Maïwenn herself, inspired by her own investigation of her diverse cultural identity. Despite her plainly impassioned investment in the project, and some intense, raucously entertaining scenes of intimate warfare along the way, “DNA” becomes less engaging as its focus narrows.
Despite premiering in low-key fashion at the Deauville American Film Festival — somewhat ironically, for a film obsessively immersed in French and Algerian nationalities — with follow-up dates at San Sebastián and Zurich, “DNA” was to have been more prominently unveiled at this year’s scrapped Cannes fest, where it would likely have been a major red-carpet event. (Maïwenn’s last two features, 2011’s “Polisse” and 2015’s “My King,” both played in Competition there; there’s little reason to speculate that “DNA” wouldn’t have followed suit, though it’s a notch less polished than its predecessors.) Beyond the festival circuit, it ought to do good business on home turf, where its sociopolitical queries may resonate more directly than elsewhere.
Fans of Maïwenn’s work will know to expect a film that opens at fever pitch, pinballing chaotically between turbulent farce and teary angst, with minimal niceties of character introduction and narrative build: The opening scenes here feel akin to arriving late to an extended family Christmas dinner, at which you know nobody except the one member who invited you, and has passed out drunk in a corner. It takes time to disentangle even the essential generational strands of the large, permanently bickering Fellah clan, who seemingly agree only on their love for frail, Alzheimer’s-stricken patriarch Emir (Omar Marwan), who emigrated to France from his native Algeria in the 1950s, raising a brood that largely identifies as simply French.
The exception is his granddaughter Neige (Maïwenn), an unsettled, depressive single mother, who’s increasingly tormented by her lack of connection to her Algerian roots, and who attempts to force the subject into family conversation in ways that raise the hackles of her siblings and her estranged mother Caroline (Ardant). If even Neige’s seemingly benevolent gesture of compiling a family history album to prompt Emir’s escaped memories becomes a bone of contention, that’s nothing compared to the meltdown that ensues when the old man dies. Sudden family feuds ensue over matters as minor as what shade of white to choose for the coffin lining, or more loaded matters such as whether to dress Emir’s corpse in traditional Muslim garb or a western suit.
Ugly and aggravating as these scenes of domestic sturm und drang are, they’re also where Maïwenn’s filmmaking thrives: As we saw in her furious cop drama “Polisse,” she has a knack for pushing scenes of verbal conflict to a point of exhilarating hysteria that eventually tumbles into more bruising, visceral violence. Laure Gardette’s fast, neck-craning editing and the hot colors of Sylvestre Dedise and Benjamin Groussain’s lensing further amplify the mood, while Maïwenn’s actors evidently feel unleashed under her command. Ardant, in particular, is something to see, compressing manifold frustrations, resentments and feelings of guilt until they irrationally explode, most vividly in a manic funeral scene that sees her literally crash the earnest eulogy her daughter is delivering.
That wild energy abruptly slackens, however, in the second half of this brief 90-minute film. Surrounding family politics fade into the background of Neige’s solo quest to reclaim her Algerian nationality — both spiritually and officially, as she applies for citizenship and undergoes a dubious mail-order DNA test to determine her exact lineage. This is clearly the stuff of significant drama to Maïwenn, whose script — co-written with Matthieu Demy — was inspired by research into her own French-Algerian-Vietnamese heritage and, per press notes, a life-changing first trip to Algeria.
These questions of how we define ourselves within our family history, and the nature-or-nurture influence of our cultural makeup, are theoretically intriguing, but never gain real emotional urgency — in large part because Neige remains one of the film’s vaguest characters, given only faint sketch strokes of life or quirk beyond her one burning mission. We see little of her relationship with her own children, in particular, and rather more of her taking golden-hour scooter rides through Paris with her ex-boyfriend turned confidante François — played by a delightfully sardonic Garrel, who nonetheless doesn’t emerge as a character in his own right either.
Neige’s journey does work toward a cathartic, emotions-writ-large conclusion, egged on the swelling, weeping strings of a full-on score by Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck. If you feel something, and you well might, that’s because Maïwenn’s filmmaking is brashly skilled at telling you what to feel. Still, that’s not quite the same as reaching an understanding of her troubled, defensive character, to whom the director is perhaps too close to really lay bare.