"Cotton Top and Golden Top,
Two kids in a garden.
Cotton Top, where's Mommy gone?
I don't know.
Come, give me your hand.
Where will we go?
I don't know."
If you find yourself asleep--or yelling at the screen--at the end of Give Me Your Hand, you only have yourself to blame. Knowing that it's French is ample warning, and for many viewers I imagine the film (a.k.a. Donne-moi la main) will be too slow, empty and (sometimes) annoying to enjoy. There's minimal dialogue--the first words (a prophetic "We're lost...") aren't spoken until more than six minutes into the film, which is filled with long stretches of quiet. There's also very little character development (we don't even learn the names of the two protagonists until 35 and 52 minutes in) and action, and the ending will most likely leave you unfulfilled.
So why did I like it so much? There's something hypnotic about the visuals constructed by director Pascal-Alex Vincent and cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine, who have weaved together a mesmerizing 72-minute poem. There's a dark yet beautiful tone to the film, brought to life by the haunting performances of real-life twins Alexandre and Victor Carril. They play young twins Antoine (Alexandre) and Quentin (Victor), who we slowly learned have left their humble French home--and their father, a baker--on a road trip to Spain. They hike their way through the dark yet beautiful countryside en route to the funeral of their mother--a woman they never knew (a plot point the film shares far too soon, robbing it of a more intense ending).
The trek was Quentin's idea, and you soon get the sense that Antoine would rather be anywhere else. The brothers have a love/hate relationship, and the bickering and horseplay--which comes across more painful than playful--starts almost immediately. With little dialogue, it's up to the actors to breathe life into these complex characters and tell us their stories through their eyes, face and movement. And it's remarkable how effective they are at establishing an intense dynamic that fuels the film's alluring mood.
It's an especially challenging task considering we don't even know their names for the majority of the film--outside of one physical clue (Antoine has a scar over his left eye), it's up to the actors to quickly establish and develop the twins' unique personas. Antoine is the more mature and responsible adult figure, while the artistic Quentin is more fiery, passionate and immature, with frequent complaints only serving to further antagonize his brother. We don't know much about these two, yet I was fixated to the screen as their journey played out--and found myself coming up with my own ideas on their history together. What brought them to this point in their life?
We all know that twins have a unique connection no one else can fully appreciate, and that mysterious, symbiotic relationship gives the film an almost indescribable energy. It's the co-relationship between the two, their control over each other and how their conflict boils to the surface--not their physical journey--that's important. Few outsiders are allowed into their world, but a handful of key encounters provoke them--and the story--to a heightened state: A young woman at a gas station, a pair of girls who pick up the hitchhikers, a co-worker at a (temporary) labor job in a field (a venture necessitated by their lack of funds), a man in a train station, a woman in the woods...all of them play small yet crucial roles in propelling the twins to an intensely emotional encounter.
There's a sexual subtext to much of the proceedings (including some homoerotic undertones, although they aren't as incestuous as some might think), and that intensity breathes life into the film. The passion is also evident in the intoxicating visuals, which hint at a dream-like quality--one that keeps you guessing throughout (at one point, I had an oddball theory that came closer to reality than I anticipated). So many shots here would be worthy photographs in an art book, the brothers' relationship with each other--and with nature--playing out in front of us. Their faces, along with their physical positioning, tell us so much that we almost don't even need dialogue. On more than once occasion, I thought Give Me Your Hand could easily succeed as a silent film (which, it turns out, would have given the ending far more impact).
Vincent is all about themes and images--the eyes are the star of the film, a point reinforced through Quentin's art work (the opening scene is animated, and perfectly sets up the brothers' relationship). The director is well aware of his film's pace, which he frequently reinforces with bridging shots showing us landscapes, train tracks (trains are another important recurring theme) and plenty other images--cigarettes slowing burning in a glass, wind chimes lightly swaying in the breeze, sand sifting through fingers and (most obviously) a snail crawling on a plant. There's a parallel here between the brothers and nature, with a fierce wind one of many elements connecting the two. There's something so simple about the film, which blends a tempestuous relationship with gorgeous imagery to stir up feelings of mystery, anger and love.
But it still makes some mistakes--the duo's encounter with the gas station attendant is awkward and unbelievable, perhaps the most forced subplot; while Antoine's run-in with a lonely older woman toward the end culminates with a laughable sequence, a stark contrast to the rest of the film (perhaps that was Vincent's intent). But the biggest grievance I have is with the ending, a big disappointment, but one typical of so many sullen French films. It's a bit of a cheat, especially considering that the film feels like its building toward something. It's not so much what transpires, but that it's so repetitive given what has come before--it doesn't reveal anything new about the brothers or their dynamic. The film concludes with a display we've seen before (although slightly more severe this time), limiting its lasting impression--and not provoking nearly as much thought as it could, a letdown considering how involving the film is to that point.
But given the tragic beauty that preceded it, the ending is a forgivable offense. Ultimately, this is a film about abandonment. These two young men are lost, and the road trip forces them to grow up and find their way--with or without each other. Give Me Your Hand will undoubtedly frustrate more people than it fascinates, but if you're open to sparse stories that rely on imagery and interpretation, you could easily find yourself under its spell.
The anamorphic transfer (what looks to be 2.35:1) is perhaps representative of the filmmaker's intent, but it isn't going to blow you away--a shame considering how visual the film is. Like the story, there's a dark look to most of the shots, and colors aren't as bold as they could be. This isn't a sharp picture, and plenty of noise and grain is present. It doesn't hinder the film's power, and in some ways enhances its rough, rugged tone.
The 2.0 French track (with forced English subtitles; the brief Spanish dialogue here is subtitle-free, which I imagine is intentional) is decent, although a 5.1 mix that took more advantage of crucial elements like the wind would have been nice (this is a film that plays on your senses, so it would be fitting). The dialogue is always clear.
Nothing but the theatrical trailer and trailers for other Strand releases.
Part road movie, part poetry, this French effort relies on hypnotic visuals and the tense relationship between twin brothers to cast a beautiful spell on the viewer. With very little dialogue--and little by way of back story, action or character development--it's all about setting a mood open to interpretation. The lead performances--built more around expression and movement--are suitably intense, taking you on an emotional journey as you try to piece together their past and their future. Not much happens in Give Me Your Hand, which will frustrate most viewers--and an unsatisfying ending may annoy the rest of you. Still, I was surprisingly involved with this quiet, visually arresting film, one filled with mystery, anger, sexual intensity and love. Rent It.