Yamina Benguigui’s Sisters (Soeurs) wants to tackle generational trauma and complex family dynamics, but ends up feeling a little tired and confused.
Sometimes a film uses a particular device in order to portray parts of its narrative in a fun, engaging, different or interesting way. But sometimes, that device doesn’t pan out in the manner one might expect. Unfortunately, it’s the latter in the case of Yamina Benguigui’s Sisters (Soeurs in the original French), a film that saves its most interesting aspects for a somewhat rushed final third and spends too long on an unnecessary, jumbled and cliché theatre-based subplot. It spoils what might have been a really impactful story of trauma and Algerian women in France: their struggles with identity, purpose and their pasts.
Zorah (Isabelle Adjani), Djamila (Rachida Brakni) and Norah (Maïwenn) are sisters with a complicated relationship, as well as a complicated history. When they were children, their father – an abusive, committed fighter for Algerian independence – abducted their younger brother as the girls, alongside their mother (Fettouma Oushliha Bouamari), fled to France. Now a successful playwright, eldest sibling Zorah has cited her life story as inspiration for her newest production, much to the chagrin of her sisters and mother. It causes a rift within an already fragile family dynamic, which isn’t improved when word comes from Algeria that their father is unwell in a hospital there. They trio decide to make the trip to Algiers, hoping to find closure, answers and to bury the trauma they so desperately tried to leave behind, but that has haunted them all throughout their adulthood.
First things first, as a narrative, Sisters is compelling. It feels like an incredibly personal, almost autobiographical, piece of filmmaking from Benguigui and touches on some really intense but important thematic points. But unfortunately, there’s a bit of a disconnect throughout that leaves the first two thirds feeling a bit muddled, and the final third chasing to sort itself out and deliver rewarding emotional payoff. It all stems from the narrative device of the ‘play’, a means in which the film can go a bit meta and neatly catch us, the audience, up on the exposition and relevant historical events. ‘Acted scenes’ within the film serve as flashbacks, but it feels a bit discombobulated at times, meaning it’s unclear as to whether we’re seeing Zorah’s fictional interpretation or actual events. It doesn’t help that the subplot where we follow Zorah to work, sit in with rehearsals and chat with her cast, is perhaps the most boring aspect of the film. Its interludes feel unnecessary and frustrating as it pushes the core of the film – the girls’ trip to Algeria and reparation with their childhood traumas – further into the run time.
But when Benguigui does get to Algiers, the film starts to connect a lot more. It’s not perfect, as it introduces a lot of interesting concepts that are never particularly explored, but it is an improvement. It seems like Benguigui wants to create and encourage discussion on issues such as identity, immigration, the struggle for rights, heritage and history, freedom, safety and feminism with this film. But by spending so long in the theatre, Sisters doesn’t reach its potential and ends up feeling a little rushed, like the generational trauma isn’t the most exciting aspect of this story, ripe for exploring.
The performances are good, even if the characterisation is a little thin. It feels like the film could have done with a serious edit and more time for the big emotional build-up to develop, breathe, and then land more confidently and clearly than it does. Sisters wants to tell an important story, but its delivery is a bit all-over-the place, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t do justice to a pretty impressive group of women with a story full of potential to resonate.
Sisters (Soeurs) was screened at the French Film Festival @ Home on Friday 3 December, 2021.