French actress-turned-director Maïwenn’s Cannes-acclaimed 2011 ensemble comedy “Polisse” was an energetic portrait of officers in France’s juvenile division that, if anything, strained from too many moving parts. Her follow-up, “Mon Roi” (“My King”), suffers from too few. Despite committed turns by Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Bercot as an unlikely couple who meet cute, have a kid and wind up squabbling over whether they should separate, “Mon Roi” never moves beyond the basic trappings of its formula. Worse, it repeats the same tropes over and over again for two hours, as if the filmmaker ran out of steam along with her central couple.
“Mon Roi” starts out intriguingly enough, with Bercot’s character Tony speeding down a mountaintop and wrecking her knee, sending her to rehabilitation. Later, she’s interrogated by a doctor who asks her to explain the mindset that led her to such carelessness. Cue a prolonged flashback to years earlier when Tony, already divorced, meets the insuppressible Georgio (Cassel) at a bar and quickly gives into his charms.
Over breakfast, joined by her supportive brother (Louis Garrel) and his wife, Tony finds herself entranced with Georgio’s unabashed bravado. By their second date, the good-natured courtship continues to the bedroom, and “Mon Roi” looks well-positioned to showcase the evolution of a doomed romance. Maïwenn’s stars bury themselves in their roles. Cassel is a natural fit for the carefree Georgio, while Bercot (who also directed this year’s naturalistic Cannes opener “Standing Tall”) makes a convincingly gullible target of his advances. The tender Bercot and cheery Cassel naturally compliment each other onscreen, with Garrel and other supporting cast forming an effective comedic backdrop to the proceedings as they witness the couple rapidly — maybe too rapidly — get serious.
Unsurprisingly, the romance steadily gets complicated. Georgio is haunted by a troubled former girlfriend (Camille Cottin) and puts the pressure on Tony to bear his child; when she finally relents, he struggles to deal with her mood swings. With time, Tony’s suave demeanor gives way to more erratic tendencies, leading Tony to question his fidelity to her. Bercot effectively conveys Tony’s mounting frustration with her eventual husband, but that inevitable outcome does little to keep the story involving on any level.
Perhaps to pad the unnecessary two-hour running time, Maïwenn and co-writer Etienne Comar regularly shift forward to Tony’s experiences in the rehab clinic, where closeups of her injured knee point to a blunt metaphor about her painful process of renewal. A few other scenes at the clinic involving Maïwenn’s tentative new friendships with fellow patients hint at the makings of another, possibly more intriguing movie, but they’re merely dropped into the plot as an afterthought.
The erratic structure of “Mon Roi” reflects a clear-cut attempt to replicate the ups and downs of a long-term relationship, the opposite of the more reliable prospects of a stable lifestyle, which Georgio compares to flatlining on a heart monitor. While the director taps into that concept in the contrast between various extremes — the couple eagerly writhing about in the bedsheets versus throwing tantrums over their misaligned priorities — “Mon Roi” never manages to take that perspective beyond the initial juxtaposition established by the pendulum swing of its narrative design.
Maïwenn’s evidently tight control over her performances once again shows its strength within the context of individual scenes, where the characters’ attitudes often convincingly shift from blithe to furious in a matter of minutes. But the overall arc of their developing relationship fails to convince. When Tony tells Giorgio that “we destroy each other,” it’s hard to tell if some part of her thrives on that perception, because variations on the same love-hate dynamic come and go indefinitely. “Let’s stop this charade,” Tony eventually begs Giorgio, and by the end, viewers are apt to agree.
“Mon Roi” premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.