French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin directs Kings & Queen like a man told he'll never make another movie again. Desplechin seems determined to squeeze every life lesson, every artistic idea he's ever had into his rich, sprawling melodrama, which lasts two-and-a-half hours but doesn't dawdle for a second.
Not that it's difficult to follow Kings & Queen's plot -- or rather, plots. The film unfolds on two tracks that only occasionally intersect. Emmanuelle Devos plays Nora, a twice-married single mother who discovers that her father (Maurice Garrel) is dying of cancer. Meanwhile, Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), a tempestuous violist, finds himself committed to a mental institution and labors to clean up his messy personal life.
At first, Nora and Ismaël's stories seem sharply distinct. As Nora grapples with grief and crushing duties, her tale feels grim and dramatic, with the quiet moments magnifying her wrenching anguish. By contrast, Ismaël's exploits play more for laughs. Crowded with colorful characters, his scenes prove more raucous, and even such extreme behaviors as suicide attempts lead to comedy and romance. With parallel plots but diverging cinematic tones, Kings & Queen could be a cousin to last year's French genre experiment, Trilogy.
But neither story remains in a neat category. Nora's plot doubles back on itself in dreams and flashbacks. We discover that Pierre, the father of her child, died while she was pregnant, and Nora led a lonely battle not just to raise her son alone, but to petition the government to recognize Pierre's paternity -- eventually securing a legal marriage to the dead man. Later, Kings & Queen flashes further back to the circumstances of his death, making Nora's backstory even more morally complicated. It's like Desplechin discovers wheels within wheels as he reveal his characters' histories.
Ismaël fights his own David-vs.-Goliath battle with another facet of the legal system as he tries to uncover why he was committed, arrange his release and get his runaway emotions under control. Unfortunately, his lawyer (Hippolyte Girardot) turns out to be a drug addict even more erratic than Ismaël, and in a slapstick sequence, the pair sneaks intoxicants from the hospital pharmacy. Ismaël gradually learns to respect his responsibilities as a son, a lover, an artist and even as a surrogate father.
Desplechin doesn't overload the viewer with information but crowds Kings & Queen with philosophical notions and allusions to high and low culture. You don't watch the film so much as unpack it. When Kings & Queen evokes classical mythology and art, Desplechin points to deeper, more archetypal implications for his plots. The film's characters challenge conventional ideas of family, tearing up the social fabric and stitching it back together. Nora both venerates and resents her lofty, ailing father, while Ismaël's kin could be his own worst enemies. When adoption becomes a recurring theme, the film suggests that you can reject your blood relations and form new family bonds.
Our assessments of Nora and Ismaël reverse themselves over the course of the film. Though Devos gives a rich, sensitive performance, one character's devastatingly harsh assessment makes us question whether she's the sympathetic, self-sacrificing martyr she initially seems. Ismaël frequently behaves with obnoxious selfishness: He avoids a love-struck mental patient and tells a female psychiatrist (French film icon Catherine Deneuve) his theory that men have souls, and women don't. "Women just live. Men live to die," he says. But Amalric plays Ismaël as more than a just a motor-mouthed nut case. He's well aware of his flaws, even as he succumbs to them.
Desplechin overreaches with some show-offy narrative tricks. Action-movie gunplay erupts in an out-of-nowhere robbery scene, while Nora's melodramatic attempt to travel from Grenoble to Paris emulates a chase movie. Such self-conscious stylishness feels more like the director's own indulgences than the most honest representations of his characters' mental states. Desplechin could have taken a breath and saved the more mannered moments for future projects. The artistic abundance of Kings & Queen affirms that Desplechin has a kingly cinematic career ahead of him.
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