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Rois et reine
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by Brad Wilber

"Overcomes its longueurs with splendid acting and sophisticated storytelling"
4 stars

French director Arnaud Desplechin can’t bring a film in under two hours, and he almost always gets chided for subjecting his audience to unwarranted length and self-indulgent pacing. THE SENTINEL (1992), ESTHER KAHN (2000), and especially MY SEX LIFE…OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT (1996), which flirts with the three-hour mark, all test our stamina even if the director’s gifts are undeniable. Desplechin’s newest film, KINGS AND QUEEN, follows his pattern as to running time, and it does feel inert in a few stretches and overambitious in others. But the good news is that it’s by far his most cohesive and mature work—the most deserving of our long sit.

He reunites two of the leads from MY SEX LIFE, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric. (For their participation in the earlier film, both were nominated for Cesar Awards in their respective “Most Promising” categories; for KINGS AND QUEEN they each received a nod in the “senior” acting divisions. Amalric went two for two.) Devos is the QUEEN—Nora Cotterelle, a thirty-five-year-old semi-single career woman. At first she appears to be sailing through life (she’s an art gallery director, one of filmdom’s most clichéd métiers for Women Who Have It All), but not long into the action we see she’s flailing a bit as she tries to make sense of her relationships with the key men in her life. The KINGS include her young son Elias (Valentin Lelong), her fiancé Jean-Jacques (Olivier Rabourdin), her famous-author father Louis (Maurice Garrel), and her previous significant other Ismail Vuillard (Amalric), a classical violist of highly-charged moods.

Elias’s biological father Pierre died during Nora’s pregnancy. Ismail was in the picture as a willing parental figure during most of the boy’s childhood up to this point, but Nora has recently broken it off with Ismail and moved on to the contrasting figure of Jean-Jacques, who is high-finance and low-maintenance—he’s quite patient with Elias's reluctance to bond. As for her own father, Nora pays him a birthday visit only to discover he faces dire medical problems. She farms her son out to the nearest friends, summons her wrong-side-of-the-tracks sister Chloe (Nathalie Boutefeu), and hunkers down for a painful vigil at Louis’s bedside.

Meanwhile, interspersed segments unfold the current trials of Ismail. Some anonymous party concerned about Ismail’s increasingly erratic behavior (he has been spotted in public wearing a doublet and cape, and a noose sways from the center of his apartment ceiling) has called in the mental health professionals. Orderlies named Prospero and Caliban appear at Ismail’s door with hypodermic and restraints. Once hospitalized, Ismail must convince the administrator (Catherine Deneuve) as well as his regular analyst (Elsa Woliaston) that he is stable enough to be spared more permanent removal from society. Bringing in his lawyer Marc Mamanne (the brilliantly manic Hippolyte Girardot) only complicates matters. The attorney wants to see Ismail back among the populace eventually, but in the short term Mamanne is fixated on another agenda—one, getting Ismail declared clinically incompetent to wipe out the musician’s mountainous IRS debt, and two, taking advantage of hospital access to purloin pharmaceuticals for himself.

The stories connect when Nora seeks out Ismail in order to persuade him to adopt Elias. Ismail, while sympathetic, would like to devote his energies to obtaining his own release and to restoring some vigor to an attractive but despondent fellow inmate named Arielle (Magali Woch).

As the movie progresses, a more omniscient point of view assumes responsibility for Nora’s story line. Or at least we realize that her own sharing with us has been somewhat selective. Before we are even aware of the shift, our sense of comfort with her has started to dissipate. First, Nora sees an apparition of the departed Pierre (Joachim Salinger), and as the details of his demise and its aftermath come out in flashback, we are left shaken. (I kept thinking I’d seen Salinger before, but he’s a fairly brand-new presence. I decided he was reminding me of Brit actor James Frain). We are also treated to scenes of Nora’s former domestic life with Ismail, and after that her pedestal wobbles even more. The capper in the present is a bitter farewell letter from Louis, one of the most scathing outpourings ever put on film. Our eyes are opened to how Nora’s constant self-justification—or perhaps self-insulation is a better description—has left a trail of damage. Even so, I don’t think the film is about the slow demonizing of Nora. It's more about how ridiculous the very concept of a reliable narrator can be—we’re all going to tell stories in ways that defend our own choices, and the “eye of God” version will surely have its own truth. It's a rare film where flashbacks are revealing in anything but a purely convenient way, but here Desplechin has parked his characters in a muddled present and set up situations where we're as fascinated by where they have already been as by where they might end up.

When it comes to the “Kings,” Nora’s thought processes strike us as contradictory. She worries about being a bad mother but hardly seems inclined to put forth effort in that direction. She avoids the final steps to marriage (she calls Pierre and Ismail husbands without having made it official with either one) but she tearfully insists on formalizing legal connections between her lovers and her son. After Pierre’s passing she begged the courts to notarize his paternity of Elias—and a succession of bureaucrats looked askance at her and wondered what she hoped to get out of a dead man. Now Nora pushes Ismail to pursue adoption even though she jilted him and will soon marry a man who can promise every kind of security in greater measure. Even as damning evidence accumulates against Nora, Devos wrings tremendous pathos out of the role. Late in the film, as it's dawning on Nora that her men have something apart from her which will help them outlast any wrongs she may have done, Devos gives us a kind of glowing resignation, a tristesse that is not heroic but is memorable in its own way.

Ismail is just as complex a character. We see a lot of his loopy side, certainly. He actually breakdances in the middle of group therapy. But he can be immature, lordly, and dismissive—he pushes all the buttons of his choleric sister (Noemie Lvovsky), he leaves poor Arielle constantly befuddled, and he has earned the contempt of the colleagues in his string quartet. Ismail can be boorish in philosophical debate, but he can turn humble and endearing in the bosom of his family. Amalric’s facility with these varied portraits is a tour de force for him, and the journey takes him all the way to a terrifically scripted final heart-to-heart with Elias. Ismail is not only taking steps toward his own clarity but manages to offer some to his surrogate son without a hint of condescension. Elias seems animated in Ismail’s presence, talked to as an equal, while he's only enervated with his mother.

I don’t go into French films expecting homages to Woody Allen, but Desplechin has made no secret of his debt to, for example, HUSBANDS AND WIVES. Both that film and KINGS AND QUEEN show individuals talking as if to an off-camera interviewer. But it’s more than a copycat gesture. Desplechin cannily turns that device on its head. When he uses it later on to show Louis’s recitation of his poison-pen letter, it’s so stark it’s more like something out of Lars von Trier. Like Allen, Desplechin feels comfortable in the ironic vein and knows how to do humor amidst gravitas. KINGS AND QUEEN is one of those films that refuse to get locked into a single tone, but it does the dance without causing that familiar inward cringe one gets when faced with directorial timidity. The mutable tone produces moments of genuine suspense—at the part where Ismail and his father are caught in a hold-up at a convenience store, I was gasping throughout because I didn't feel I had a handle on how it was going to resolve.

The pile-on of literary allusions seemed contrived to me (especially the recurring image of the Greek myth of Zeus and Leda, even though I concede its relevance). And if by using the strains of “Moon River” they are trying to tell me I’m watching another take on Holly Golightly….no. (I don’t know if “Nora” is a reference to Ibsen or not). But there’s no doubt this is one of the best French films of 2004, and laying aside the country of provenance altogether—if you’re getting tired of films that you forget as soon as you’ve turned off the DVD player, then put this one on your list of rental ideas. You’ll be thinking about it for a while.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=10575&reviewer=395
originally posted: 12/15/05 21:50:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Toronto Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/24/10 stefan bollani unequal, too long, too many themes at once,all dressed pizza-movie acaricatural sometimes, 3 stars
8/29/05 catherine hugely enjoyable. bittersweet film with some great comic moments, v. well acted 5 stars
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