Transformation is a powerful thing. The first time I ever saw a film by Arnaud Desplechin was one of the cinematic moments that changed my life. Close your eyes with me. Imagine that feeling of walking into a movie theater unaware and walking out a new person. It’s 1996, I’m 25 years old and living on poverty wages in Washington, D.C. spending my days in an exhausting government job and my nights hopping from one movie theater to the next. My favorite of the bunch, The Biograph, had closed and been replaced by a CVS pharmacy. All that remained, aside from the relatively mainstream fare, was the snobby Kennedy Center and The Key Theater on Wisconsin Ave., one block north of M Street (it is now a Banana Republic, a fact which makes it hard for me to walk though the doors of that particular chain store.) The theater was well kept, and I slid in, dripping wet from the rain on the streets, grabbed a seat near the back and watched what has become one of the cornerstone films of my life; My Sex Life…or How I Got Into An Argument. There are moments you never forget at the movies, and I can remember almost every detail of that night; the smell of the space (popcorn and expensive perfume), the shape of the head of the person in front of me, the texture of the floor beneath my feet, the lumpy contours of the cushion in my seat. The epic scope of the film, the honest exploration of real and complicated feelings, those messy interactions of people my own age; it was literally transformative. Matthieu Amalric’s performance as Paul Dedalus, so flawed, selfish, egotistical, manipulative, and so very alive, resonated with me in a powerful way, but so too did Emanuelle Devos as the heartbroken Esther and Jeanne Balibar as the manipulative Valérie. Every character in the film feels like a part of me. The jilted lover, the lothario, the confused student, the rival– all of them share something of me, and the impression they made on me in my mid-20’s, was profound. The cast in the film has gone on to become the face of contemporary French cinema, and seeing them perform in other films (particularly Devos in Read My Lips, Balibar in Va Savoir? and Amalric in another favorite, Late August/Early September) feels like spending time with old friends whom I miss dearly. I have since seen every film Desplechin has ever made (save for Love Without Pity, which I have been unable to track down), and when I saw that his latest feature, Rois et Reine was rescheduled for a new screening time at Toronto, I jumped at the chance to spend my night with my favorite director. I have literally seen over 22 films since the week began, many of them excellent, but no film has moved me as powerfully as Rois et Reine.
Rois et Reine reunites Devos and Amalric on-screen as Nora and Ismaël (yes, the literary puns certainly apply), former lovers whose lives have diverged onto two very different paths. As Nora confronts the death of her father, Ismaël is forced into a psychiatric hospital in order to prevent him from hurting himself with his erratic behavior. The two story lines could not be more divergent at first; the gravity of watching a beloved daughter handle the death of her elderly father played against the hilarity of Ismaël ‘s own confrontation with his anxieties, his unhelpful therapist, and his drugged up lawyer. But the thematic overlaps become clear as soon as Nora’s father checks into the hospital and we start to see the institution at work– the doctors are unable to save his life, much like they are unable to free Ismaël from his neuroses. Similarly, the dysfunction of Ismaël’s family life is played against the strength of Nora’s character and her devotion to her familial responsibilities, a strength that comes into question when Nora makes a profound discovery after her father’s death (to give away more would ruin the experience of the film.) And so, Desplechin juggles rhymes and themes much like the poets and philosphers his characters constantly quote. Life is comedy and tragedy, illness and vitality, love and death, cruelty and compassion, crime and charity. All of these qualities are reflected in both Nora and Ismaël’s experiences, and if in the beginning our sympathies lie with Nora’s grief at the expense of fully empathizing with Ismaël’s pleas for freedom, by the end of the film both characters have been so thoroughly changed and made equivocal by their actions, we come to find worth and humanity in both of their experiences.
Desplechin has once again taken the epic approach to intense personal experiences, but his confidence and ability as a director to illuminate life through the power of small details shines as brightly as it ever has. The use of music in the film ALONE could warrant a 5 page review. Desplechin uses music like no other director working today. The choices he makes sometimes literally underscore specific emotions. Other times, music is a tool to rhyme situations and characters. This affords him a powerful weapon in his creative arsenal, allowing him to use sound to add layer upon layer of meaning in his films. I am surprised that more filmmakers have not picked up on his technique and utilized it. On top of his incredibly intelligent presentation of the rhythms of the personal moment (the director’s signature jump cuts within a shot are deployed to great effect) Desplechin proves that he is as profoundly talented a comedic director as he is a dramatic one. Amalric’s performance is as good as you are likely to see in any comedy this year, and the visions of him break-dancing to a French rap song during a group therapy session and crashing a college party in a theatrical cape will forever bring me pleasure. But once again, much like her powerhouse turn in La femme de Gilles, the movie is practically posessed by the subtle beauty of Devos’ performance as Nora. Her portrayal of a woman trying to keep it all together while being engulfed by loss is exceptional (Devos is a world class crier), and the work I have seen from her in the past two years alone has launched her into my personal pantheon of great actresses. I could simply watch her forever. Desplechin is a great actors director, and Rois et Reine is all the proof anyone should require. I was moved so deeply by the character’s choices, became so invested in their lives, I truly wished the movie never ended and I could spend more time with them.
This time, however, I was certainly more experienced as a fan of Desplechin’s work and as a moviegoer. Despite my own fatigue after days of endless screenings, I felt so alive in that theater, was so actively engaged in the story, the filmmaking, the performances, I was literally vibrating when I walked out into the night, alone with my thoughts. I clutched my bag against the dark night and let my experiences of Desplechin’s work echo down the empty streets of downtown Toronto, a feeling that filled me with that rainy night on Wisconsin Avenue back in 1996. Transformed again, as new and as alive as the first time.