Kings and Queen (France, 2004)
Kings and Queen, the 2004 film by French director Arnaud Desplechin, is wending its way slowly across North America, making its way into select art houses. The movie is quintessentially French, focusing on drama instead of melodrama and character instead of plot. The action here is internalized - quite a refreshing change from the brainless excess of too many teen-oriented summer blockbusters. That's not to say Kings and Queen is a perfect movie. Its length is a drawback - some scenes run too long and others have no obvious reason for inclusion beyond adding a little color. Kings and Queen is at times compelling, at times devastating, and at times long-winded.
The events in Kings and Queen center on two characters: Nora Cotterelle (Emmanuelle Devos) and her ex-lover, Ismaël Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric). Although the relationship between the two has ended by the time the movie begins, they remain tied by their mutual love for Nora's eight-year old son, Elias (Valentin Lelong). Circumstances force Nora to care for her terminally ill father, Louis (Maurice Garrel), who is facing a painful last week as cancer eats away at his insides. Meanwhile, Ismaël has been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric clinic by his sister, who believes him to be exhibiting aberrant behavior. While there, he meets and falls for a younger woman (Magalie Woch) with suicidal tendencies.
Nora is a believable, complex character - a damaged but self-assured woman who finds the strength to pick herself up after each new tragic chapter in her life. We learn through flashbacks that she blames herself for the suicide of Elias' father, and now she faces a horrible choice concerning Louis. The film takes an unexpected turn, smashing the conventions of cinematic closure, when Nora reads a harsh missive written by the man she has revered and feared. We are accustomed to this sort of device - the reading of a letter that expresses sentiments never spoken aloud - but not in the way Desplechin employs it. Meanwhile, Ismaël's story is less grim but no less compelling. In fact, the comedic flavor of some of Ismaël's exploits serves as a counterpoint to Nora's more somber sequences. He is not insane, although he is high-strung. His single-minded goal for most of the movie is getting out of the clinic. Once he has achieved that aim, he works at putting his life back together, and re-connects with Elias.
The film's structure is muddled, especially Nora's piece. Desplechin freely incorporates flashbacks, but often with little cue to the viewer that the time period has shifted. Because Nora looks much the same regardless of her age, there are times when it can be confusing to determine whether we're in the past or the present. Ismaël's part of the story is presented in a more linear fashion.
Some of the secondary performances are weak, but they are more than compensated for by the strength of Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric's work. Both leads are credible, their acting unforced. They bring these characters, with their highs and lows, to life. Devos (Read My Lips) is radiant. Through her, we see Nora's strong veneer and the fragility that exists beneath it, which is often hidden from the whole world. (The scene in which he breaks down into uncontrollable sobs is one of Kings and Queen's most poignant.) Amarlic invests Ismaël with a manic energy that rarely ebbs. Catherine Deneuve has a small but welcome role as the admissions doctor of the facility where Ismaël is hospitalized.
Nora and Ismaël are developed so richly that it is impossible to forget them once the end credits have rolled. One indication that a director has succeeded is that it's easy to believe we have merely spied on his characters for two hours; their lives continue even though we can no longer view them. Desplechin has achieved that. Though his film has flaws, the protagonists are among the most vivid screen personalities to cross my cinematic path this year.
Kings and Queen (France, 2004)
Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Deneuve, Maurice Garrel, Nathalie Boutefeu, Magalie Woch, Valentin Lelong
Screenplay: Arnaud Desplechin, Roger Bohbot
Cinematography: Eric Gautier
Music: Henry Mancini
U.S. Distributor: Wellspring
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