If you had maybe cherished hopes of being able to go into the first (of 2) Cannes 2015 Competition titles to be directed by a woman, and not immediately viewing the story through the prism of gender, the themes of Maïwenn‘s “Mon Roi” would quickly shatter those illusions. After a short prologue, the the “Polisse” director places us firmly in battle of the sexes-type territory, where we witness the first meeting of the couple whose tempestuous and and passionate relationship the film will spend the rest of its considerable runtime (130 minutes) exploring. In fact “battle” may be misleading — Tony and Georgio’s whirlwind courtship and subsequent rocky marriage is more like a long, drawn-out campaign of small victories, stunning defeats, ceasefires, and long stretches of stalemate.
But that martial imagery belies Maïwenn’s light touch with the material, which bubbles along engagingly, and with just enough humility and surprisingly daft humor to curb the script’s innate tendency toward self-indulgence. In this she is especially helped by the two sparky central performances from Emmanuelle Bercot (who, in one of those weird Cannincidences was also the director of this year’s Opening Film “Standing Tall“) and Vincent Cassel (who in another odd happenstance plays an actual King in Matteo Garrone‘s “Tale of Tales“). Between them they find enough truth and chemistry in the specificity of these odd-couple characters to make us just about forget that we’re watching yet another white, well-off, heterosexual French couple experience life with such Gallic passion and grandiose drama that even their problems become somehow sexily aspirational. To those of us whose biggest relationship issues are toilet-seat or washing-up related, anyway.
Tony (Bercot) is a lawyer out with her brother Solal (Louis Garrel) and his girlfriend (Isild le Besco) at a club one night. She spies Georgio (Cassel) hanging with his mostly younger, attractive crew of hangers-on and engineers a meet cute. Despite her brother’s reservations about Georgio, they fall in love quickly, even though Tony’s feels “ordinary” by comparison with Georgio’s previous girlfriends, who were drawn almost exclusively from the modeling class.
And indeed, Georgio is a charmer — whimsical, expansive, witty, and not afraid to take a pratfall to get a laugh, of which, in the beginning anyway, he gets many from Tony (and Bercot’s delightful, infectious, unguarded laughter is the film’s secret weapon). They clown around. They get impetuously married at a bohemian ceremony. They get pregnant. But while in the thrill of the new Georgio can be attentive (and Cassel is very good at portraying him as the kind of guy you can imagine making you feel like the only person in the world when the full laser beam of his magnetism is trained solely on you), as an ongoing proposition his selfishness begins to manifest. When an ex-girlfriend attempts suicide, it drives a wedge between him and the now-pregnant Tony, and it marks the beginning of Georgio disengaging from the delirious, giggly closeness of their initial relationship, and finding excuses to set up a life separate from Tony, even while still being married to her.
His casual cruelty develops into some spectacularly prick-like behavior, which occasional substance abuse partially explains but does not excuse, and so the question becomes why does Tony, an intelligent, lively, desirable woman in her own right, not just kick him to the curb? It’s the central quandary of the film, and how satisfying and inspiring you find the answer “because she loves him” will probably be a good measure of how much you will enjoy “Mon Roi.” In fact, were it not for Bercot’s fine, relatable playing, and for a flash-forward storytelling device that shows her gradually becoming her own woman (due to contact with a new group of men, it should be noted) you could almost be tempted to take the title of the film, (“My King”) at its non-ironic face value. Georgio, until very late in the game, really does rule the film like a monarch.
This is partly down to Cassel’s truly inhabited performance, but most simply a result of the film being almost entirely seen through Tony’s eyes. We look at Georgio the way that she does — that is made explicit in a late scene when, having been apart some time, we cut between Tony gazing at Georgio with a reignited light of unmistakable adoration in her eyes, and close up shots of Georgio himself — his hairline, his earlobe, his eyes. It is gently progressive (in a film that has no such agenda and makes no such claims) to have the man be the one so looked-at, but here Cassel is essentially the male equivalent of a manic pixie dreamgirl, just with lashings of added male ego.
Beyond that, one of the nicest surprises is Louis Garrel, who turns in maybe the lightest and most charming performance we’ve seen him give, largely because the “charismatic borderline asshole” role he usually turns in has been so thoroughly co opted by Cassel. Instead, he plays Tony’s close, caring, mordantly humored brother as “ordinary” too, and is all the better for it.
“The simple things are best” says Georgio early on. But of course to most of us what he is referreing to — grating a fresh truffle into hot chocolate to make it taste better — by no means qualifies as “simple.” This is a world in which self-reinvention is prompted by a skiing accident followed by months of specialist rehab at a sunny facility that turns into something of a summer camp, at which Tony charms and is charmed by a gaggles of young men who even point out their own lowly class status compared to hers. But Maïwenn makes no apologies for liking her characters and being invested in their problems, even though in the scheme of things, they could well seem insignificant. And Cassel and Bercot reward her faith with a believable portrayal of a couple who are either the best or the worst things to ever have happened to each other, and very probably both. It’s too long for the story it tells and that story is so much soap, to be sure, but at the very least “Mon Roi” works up a diverting, attractively played lather. [B-]