Living Large Arnaud Desplechin’s “Kings and Queen”
by Michael Koresky with responses by Brad Westcott and James Crawford
[indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot.]
Upon a second viewing, it all became so damn clear: “Kings and Queen” is indeed something to be astonished by. I originally watched the film with a queasy mix of post-work fatigue and amusement, aware that I was being taken on an emotional roller coaster but unsure of the reasons why. Too often must critics, overdosed on seeing so many films, use their first-and-only experience to form their reviews, as if art, and something as bafflingly alive as “Kings and Queen,” could ever be explained or contained within those initial two and half hours?
Forcing myself to sort through its wondrous forest of sensory overload, I remained perhaps too cautious and removed at first, and all I was left with afterwards were snapshots and rushes of shock: here a terrifying gunshot, a woman’s mouth trying to scream but making no sound, a strangely out-of-place convenience store shoot-out; there a tender moment of child-foster parent reconciliation, a bemused Catherine Deneuve in a white doctor’s smock, a goofy dance of hip-hop freedom. It’s been widely noted how many styles, tones, and moods Arnaud Desplechin uses to convey so many conflicting emotions and brain patterns.
Yet the astonishment doesn’t come in the audacity of the combination, or in any sort of Tarantino-esque mix-tape aesthetic-what’s truly spectacular about “Kings and Queen” is that the transitions are seamless. Jumping back and forth between the film’s two narrative strands, connecting them by character if not so much by basic genre tenets, Desplechin proves to be as skillful at film calisthenics as Altman. And while his most easily identifiable current compatriot would be Olivier Assayas, “Kings and Queen” is a profound plunge into a lush human fealty of which Assayas only thus far touched the rim. Perhaps it’s the pleasurable balance of the grandiose and the intimate that makes “Kings and Queen” an essential more-than-once viewing experience. It’s imperative to enjoy the film on each of those levels; the first time’s a charm, the second time’s an epiphany.
But at the same time that’s not to imply that there’s something to “figure out” or that the divergent parallel stories, informed by regal Greek myth and jittery New Wave postmodernism in equal hefty doses, are at all difficult to follow. What Desplechin’s film requires is complete disarmament, a mood more than a mindset. The greatness of its twin performances-“Read My Lips“‘ drowsy-eyed, phenomenally vivid Emmanuelle Devos as single mother and art gallery director Nora; “My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument)“‘s scampish, charmingly askew Mathieu Amalric as possibly unbalanced yet furiously self-aware violinist Ismael-sneaks up on you, but once you’re in the wavelength of these beautiful eccentrics, there’s really nothing you’d rather be doing than watching them flutter around, bouncing off of each other’s lives in minimal yet acutely affecting ways.
In trying to reconcile, with herself and each other, the various men in her life (her fatally ill father, her troubled 10-year-old son, Elias, her current fiancé, even the ghost of Elias’s dead father), Nora concludes that her once-lover Ismael, would be the proper parent and role model for Elias, based on their vital rapport from years past. The problem is: Ismael has recently been placed in a mental hospital for psychiatric evaluation based on “third-party recommendation.” Therefore, Ismael’s rambunctious escapades in the hospital contrast sharply with Nora’s desperate attempts at the reclamation of her overwrought inner and outer lives, yet only in tone, not spirit. The balance between these threads goes beyond “deft”; it’s pure exhilaration. Devos and Amalric, except for a brief flashback and minor convergences, largely remain compartmentalized in their own spaces and contexts, yet somehow, metaphysically, their performances inform each other, both imbued with a sort of spiritual symbiosis.
Desplechin’s work has been deemed overly daunting in the past. His prior film, the corporatist nightmare “Playing ‘In the Company of Men’” still has yet to find distribution in the U.S., and it’s unlikely that it ever will due to its unforgettably jarring imagery and forthright distancing techniques. Trying to decode it while actually watching it was like constantly gasping for air yet too often suffocating. The contemplative actor’s work- and sweat-shop “Esther Kahn” on the other hand, possibly his greatest film, utilized the very same tactics of audience alienation and performance anxiety, yet it invited much more space for contemplation of its own odd aesthetic choices. Infinitely more accessible than even “My Sex Life” (which many cite as their favorite of his films), “Kings and Queen” nevertheless constantly draws you in and then proceeds to betray your trust with some willfully bizarre gambit. Yet Desplechin never betrays your emotional involvement; rarely has a catharsis felt as earned as does the glorious final 15 minutes of “Kings and Queen,” featuring a soothing conversation between Ismael and Elias that feels as spontaneous and imaginative as anything I’ve seen in years. Desplechin knows we’ve invested a wealth of emotions into his frantic world, and he knows it’s time to reward us. As daring and forthrightly driven as his films are, it’s a wholly selfless gesture.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]
By Brad Westcott
“Kings and Queen” is chewy Euro art cinema that never feels like work-a conscious flirtation with melodrama which nonetheless stubbornly refuses easy emotional identification with its characters. Replete with contemporary correlatives to Greek Mythology and structuring intertitles dividing the film into sections, Desplechin’s latest is unapologetically modernist. In accordance with the best traditions of Joyce and Eliot, Desplechin lets some of the air out of the film’s aesthetic grandeur by populating it with real, ordinary souls.
The central delight of “Kings and Queen” is being privy to a steady stream of revelations which complicate our initial perception of Nora-titular queen bee played for keeps by Emmanuelle Devos-as the warm, ebullient single mother and daughter we meet in the film’s opening minutes. Nora has secrets and seems unable to escape the pall of death that defines her past and haunts her present. “K&Q”‘s central characterizations, including that of ex-husband Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), accumulate complexity, rendering Nora a fitting namesake of Joyce’s own wife, the inspiration for Molly Bloom. Not unlike “Ulysses,” “Kings and Queen” seems committed to the portraiture of modern man (and woman) in toto. At the very least the film interrogates how questions of personal responsibility inflect our most intimate relationships, both familial and romantic, and the hair’s breadth separating the two.
In so doing, this smart, funny film is fiendishly insistent upon subverting narrative expectations at every turn. In one scene, we find Ismael, recently released from a mental hospital, perched atop a barstool donning the very cape which helped land him in the nuthouse. As Amalric peers about, paranoid, the spitting image of the baroquely unstable Roman Polanski of “The Tenant,” we’re sure this can only go badly for him. Yet the sequence ends not in tragedy, but affirmation. If the aggregate elements of “Kings and Queen” read like a French New Wave checklist-offbeat male lead whose foibles become increasingly endearing, endearing female lead who becomes increasingly duplicitous and deadly, elliptical cutting, self-aware scoring, documentary-like interludes, gratuitous Hitchcock worship-these touches feel right at home: more earned cultural heritage than facile pomo reference making.
[Brad Westcott is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot.]
By James Crawford
To borrow from Orson Welles, “Kings and Queen,” like every one of Arnaud Desplechin’s films, is a grand choiring shout of humanity, a landscape of every conceivable emotion. His is an inverted world, where the everyday (in this case a father’s death from cancer) is imbued with a sense of grandeur and the extraordinary (a young man committed to a mental hospital by an anonymous third party) becomes commonplace; and every moment is enthralling. Because this drama is so ruthlessly quotidian, to call it magic realism isn’t quite right, but that paradoxical juxtaposition comes close to articulating the sense of wonderment that “Kings and Queen” generates.
Consider for instance the film’s best scene, in which Nora slumps against a hospital wall, drained from the all-night vigil she’s been holding for her terminally ill father. A youngish man sidles down the hall, and we soon learn that this is Nora’s former husband; they discuss their marriage, and the tribulations she’s been put through by his absence-raising their son Elias without the father being around, and the associated stigma. The beautiful, mind-bending crux: the conversation is conducted in the past tense, he died over a decade ago before Elias was born, and the whole exchange is a dream-but one rendered without the heavy-handed foregrounding that is all but required in much of Hollywood cinema.
Rather than shy away from dramatic extremes (what is a dream sequence but a way to express subjectivity without brooking intrusion into the real world?), by magically, imperceptibly merging the fanciful with the ordinary, Desplechin actively courts them. He unflinchingly embraces the unthinkable (but plausible) potentials of human interaction: a sincere, nonexploitative relationship between a child and a mature man, or more crushingly, the possibility that a father would hate his own daughter. All with ineffable, humane-dare I say it-grace.
Grand directorial gestures like these that might otherwise feel clunky are deftly executed; acted emotional extremes that normally come off with embarrassing rawness are shot through with poignancy. Strange celluloid alchemy: Desplechin is able to get away with moments that other directors wouldn’t dare attempt. Never have two and a half hours melted away so quickly or so sublimely than in “Kings and Queen.”
[James Crawford is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot.]