That Maïwenn, director, co-writer and lead actor of ADN (French for DNA), has had a life worthy of depiction is probably beside the point when the depiction exhibited is this. Potentially suggestive questions on the nature of the form—is it an example of a film à clef, autobiografiction, or cinéma verité?—are made moot by Maïwenn’s flippant treatment of narrative and character motivation. Some of the events may have happened; people may have acted in this way; the wider concerns may be real; and the struggles of identity may be particular and relevant to her experience. These considerations are subsumed by a flat, EU-realist aesthetic that neither approximates granite fact nor iridescent imagination.
Maïwenn plays Neige, whose grandfather, Emir Fellah (Omar Marwan), is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. A large, sprawling family of blood and association fuss over him. The tactility of these opening scenes, which take place in the park and the care home, possess a relative dramatic force that ebbs away as the story progresses. The tendency to use tight framing effectively renders the old man’s fragility and the fraternal intimacy he inspires; later, without his presence, it becomes a lazy stylistic default, shorn of appropriate context.
Much is made of Emir’s foundational importance to the lives of others, and his passing brings about an abrupt shift in interpersonal dynamics, that is, everyone starts shouting at each other. The family’s dysfunction appears at first to be a little perplexing, as if unhappiness and recriminations were the only possible sediments of grief and mourning. The main source of strife is Neige’s mother, Caroline (Fanny Ardant), who preaches strength over compassion and petulance over sensitivity. She disappears part way through the film, which rids us of a useful antagonist and slackens the psychological tension, representative of Maïwenn’s inconsistent approach to dramaturgy, which prioritises the trajectory of her character above all else.
Generally speaking, the centring of Neige means that the supporting players act as little more than translucent archetypes. For example, Louis Garrel might play Neige’s long-time best friend, ex-husband, and/or the father of her three children. The script refuses to specify which, possibly because his main role is that of a dopey harlequin, the comic servant introduced to defuse escalating quarrels by making paedophile jokes. It sounds like filo pastry, or something. Figures that function as ellipses can sometimes add intrigue to conventional plot dynamics, but here it remains distracting and underwritten.
Neige, in a thoughtful expression of historical memory, produces a book for Emir tracing his years as a communist firebrand in Algeria through to his subsequent migration and life in Paris. History, and particularly the fallout from the Algerian battle for independence, spreads a pall over the film, and for Neige, it manifests itself in a perfunctory way, as she negotiates scattered Maghreb literature and watches documentaries on her laptop. This wider reckoning with her identity culminates in a new passport and a return to North Africa, resolved in jarringly uncomplicated fashion. The arc that begins with Neige in an Amy Winehouse-style beehive, heavy make-up and dark contact lenses ends in her draped in a green and white flag, adorned with a red star and crescent. The dip in storyline is too sharp and the inevitable catharsis unearned.
Laure Gardette’s agitated editing captures the extended dialogue scenes, broken up by several tokenistic wide shots, which contribute the only instances of an extended spatial context. Assorted civilians and minorities are shown in an affected glow, existing in shallow focus and slow-motion, providing faintly ludicrous diversions from Neige’s increasingly fraught internal struggle. This monomaniacal solipsism may be explained by the fact the Algerian immigrant experience being portrayed here is thoroughly private and bourgeois, unconnected to broader diasporic concerns. The film eschews granular treatment of complicated, displaced populations. Rather, in a sign of privilege, Neige seeks out dubious DNA tests to confirm her ethnicity, lightly ironized by the absurdity of American companies that exploit customer’s emotional vulnerabilities through appeals to pseudo-science and “roots.” The writing inhabits firmer territory when considering more middle-class concerns.
Yet these moments fail to paint a picture resembling truthful sensibility. Following the death of Emir, a seemingly supportive patriarch, Neige confronts her father, Pierre (Alain Françon), a strange spectre, about his reactionary politics and resolute lack of empathy. As sociopathic as Neige’s mother, Pierre finds solace in his snakes, draped around his apartment. In a scene of latent dramatic value, he is shockingly assaulted during an otherwise convivial dinner, suggesting an exciting tipping point into violent horror, one that disappointingly reveals itself as the most unforgivable of tropes, the dream sequence. This is an emblem of the inchoate attitude towards biography and fiction throughout, one that refuses to consider the possible fusion of fact and imagination, as if it could only ever be one or the other.