Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Kings and Queen (2004)

Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Starring Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Maurice Garrel

French director Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen is a long and challenging film that somehow felt fun and light to me while watching it, despite its weighty subject matter (perhaps I was enjoying the challenge it presented).  It is unique, to say the least.  To summarize the plot simply, the film is about one woman/one “queen,” Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), a successful art gallery manager on the cusp of her third marriage, and the many men, or “kings,” in her life.  One “king” in particular gets extra attention, Nora’s second husband Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a troubled musician who gets committed to a mental institution.  Desplechin bounces back and forth between Nora’s heart-wrenching drama and Ismael’s comic antics throughout Kings and Queen until the juxtaposed arcs intersect in the third act.  I’ve never seen a film structured quite like this and I’m kicking myself for sending it back to Netflix without exploring it again with a second viewing.

The characters in this film are not to be judged with first impressions, like people in general I suppose.  Life seems to be fantastic for Nora in the film’s initial scene, chatting with her likable co-workers at a job she enjoys about her adoring beau, birthday gifts, and an upcoming trip.  She is beautiful.  She sees off her sweetie.  She kisses her 10-year old son.  She gives her father (Maurice Garrel) a thoughtful present. Upon first glance, Nora has every reason to be happy.  Then Desplechin pulls back the curtain.

Nora’s birthday visit quickly turns into an extended hospital visit as her father’s stomach pains are revealed to be cancer that has metastasized throughout his body.  With the crisis, we see that our first impression of Nora is a mere facade.  The “kings” in her life have been pushed off into the distance and the “queen” is left to deal with this tragedy alone.  Her drug-addict sister (the one non-king) doesn’t show up until it’s too late.  Her son is kept away to not see his grandpa suffer.  Her soon-to-be husband is off doing business (convenience best explains that relationship).  And her first husband, and the father of her son, has been long dead.  The only person she can reach is Ismael, but he’s been heartbroken by her... and is stuck in a mental hospital.

Kings and Queen has the makings of a depressing melodrama if one limits its focus to Nora’s struggles, but Desplechin inexplicably and brilliantly counters it with the absurd story of Ismael’s trip to the looney bin.  As the noose we see hanging in Ismael’s apartment shows, Ismael’s committal was not without reason.  But once he’s there, the “Ismael half” of the film becomes a story of him slowly putting his life back together, culminating with an extended epilogue in which he shares some beautiful wisdom with Nora’s son, a boy he had a hand in raising for seven years.

Also, the Ismael stuff provides much needed humor, and lots of it.  His story is filled with funny little episodes that somehow feel out of place and fit right in at the same time.  It is a string of memorable scenes:  a painfully honest therapy session with the hospital psychiatrist, a heist of the hospital’s drugs with his tweaker lawyer, flirtatious trysts with a young hospital “regular,” and a deconstruction of a Yeats poem with his apparently famous psycho-analyst.  Desplechin somehow even fits in a hip-hop dance sequence and a wrong place/wrong time convenience store robbery for Ismael. Yet I never felt this chain of seemingly non-sequitors to feel gratuitous; a true testament to the skills of this filmmaker and to that “movie star” quality that Mathieu Amalric possesses.  People may recognize Amalric from 2007’s incredible The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or from 2008’s entirely forgettable Quantum of Solace.

But all of Desplechin’s almost surreal touches are not light-hearted.  We learn of the dark twists and turns in Nora’s past, mostly surrounding her first husband’s apparent suicide and its litigious aftermath.  Decisions Nora has made throughout her life can be viewed as strong and gutsy or self-interested and cowardly, depending on a person’s interpretation.  With Nora as the film’s heroine, the audience probably will tend to lean toward the strong and gutsy.  However, that is clearly not the case for all the characters in the film.  Never is that more apparent than in one brutal monologue in which what seems like one of the stronger relationships in the film is eviscerated in an instant.  It is an astounding scene that will knock the wind out of you. 

One can read this review, get the glimpse of Kings and Queen’s complexities I’ve provided and have their head spinning.  I urge people to not to write off the film as dense, but embrace the richness of all its layers instead.  The film is a jigsaw puzzle of memorable characters and memorable scenes that may be difficult to process at first.  But like a good puzzle, its great achievement will reveal itself as you plug along.  This is one film I cannot wait to revisit (many times).

Mark it 8.

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