As Nora Cotterelle (Emmanuelle Devos, "Read My Lips") deals with the impending death of her father in Grenoble, she reflects on husbands and lovers past and present in "Kings and Queen." Meanwhile, back in Paris one of the five important men in her life, Ismaël Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric, "Alice et Martin"), is being committed to a mental institution against his will by an unknown third party. The ex-couple only cross paths twice in the film, over Nora's wish that Ismaël adopt her son Elias (Valentin Lelong) by her first, deceased husband Pierre (Joachim Salinger) as she prepares to marry the wealthy Jean-Jacques (Olivier Rabourdin, "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc").
Cowriter (with Roger Bohbot, "The Dreamlife of Angels")/director Arnaud Desplechin's ("Esther Kahn") film is overstuffed with characters and ideas and literary references and musical styles and the diametrically opposed dramas of tragedy and comedy, and yet it is vibrant and alive and he's made it work. This is a totally unique portrait of one woman's tragedy and her ex-lover's comical rise from the ashes that encompasses themes of parental favor and sibling rivalries, sex vs. love, emotional neediness and mental stability. Throw in a couple of robberies, a breakdance and two haunting visits from beyond the grave and you have the richly chaotic tapestry that is "Kings and Queen."
There are many parallels between the two story strands that Desplechin weaves around each other. Nora chooses a provocative print of "Leda and the Swan" as a birthday gift for her father while Ismaël informs psychiatric evaluator Mme Vasset (Catherine Deneuve, "8 Women") that women have no souls as she sits beneath a reproduction of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus". He claims a fine relationship with his sister Elizabeth (Noémie Lvovsky, "My Wife Is an Actress") before a flashback reveals their last contentious meeting involving a cash gift. Nora receives a phone call from sister Chloe (Nathalie Boutefeu, "Son frère") looking for money from their dad. Nora's calm, responsible exterior masks a turbulent emotional background while Ismaël is manic and eccentric on the outside but also turns out to be compassionate and sensible in his reasoning. Their closest friends appear to be employees - Nora is aided in crisis by her assistant Claude (Geoffrey Carey, "Cousin Bette") while Ismaël has great affection for his pill-popping lawyer Maître Marc Mamanne (Hippolyte Girardot, "Jump Tomorrow") (the duo's robbery of the hospital pharmacy set to klezmer music is a comic highlight).
"Kings and Queen" has so much content, no description is likely to do it justice. So many things about it usually constitute negative criticism, yet Desplechin pulls his elements together like some kind of grand symphony. Even his musical choices, beginning with Henry Macini's bookending "Moon River" (annoyingly loud in the sound mix at first), then careening through film genres and pop styles, seem thoroughly disparate yet achieve a crazy cohesion within the director's framework. The film is broken into two chapters, "Nora" and "Cruel Releases," and an epilogue, but neither chapter ignores one of the storylines and there is a beautiful balance, even shifting from comedy to tragedy.
The actors are all superb. The sublime face of Emmanuelle Devos reflects an incredible array of our own perceptions as she moves from caring daughter to some kind of mythic monster and back. Cesar winner Mathieu Amalric keeps us guessing as to whether he's comically indignant or a crazy clown, but his humanity is never in doubt. Maurice Garrel ("Son frère") delivers a shocking soliloquy with Shakespearean weight after his frail representation of Nora's father which precedes it. Ismaël's father is played by Jean-Paul Roussillon ("Baxter") with hearty health and optimism. A scene where he takes out three would-be thieves is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Noémie Lvovsky makes a strong impression as Ismaël's grasping and spiteful sister whereas than Nathalie Boutefeu pales in scenes with Devos. Joachim Salinger plays two very different Pierres - the one immortalized by Nora and the real one we see in flashback - without making them seem like different people. Deneuve's usual cool beauty makes her an ideal sparring partner for Amalric and an amusing contrast to Elsa Wolliaston, the large, black poetess who is his calm and nurturing shrink. Newcomer Magalie Woch creates a suicidal sprite as Arielle, the inmate out to seduce Ismaël, but she and Amalric don't have strong enough chemistry to put over one of the film's final wrap ups, perhaps the film's only falter.
"Kings and Queen" offers constant surprise without ever compromising its characters in servitude to plot. It leaves us with a little mystery too, as Nora proclaims that she's loved four men, only identifying two out of the five in her life.
When I learned that I was about to watch a 150-minute long French movie by a director whose work I had never seen I was, well, a bit skeptical. “Kings and Queen” may be a slightly overlong, sometimes self-indulgent flick but it is one that mixes drama and humor in well defined and blended measures that make this the kind of film that deserves multiple viewings – by choice, not necessity.
Basically, the story is about Nora Cotterelle (Emmanuelle Devos) and the men in her life. That’s the simple version. Things start out as she learns that her beloved father (Maurice Garrel) is diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer and given a week to live. The distraught Nora tries to get her wayward, drug-abusing sister, Chloe (Nathalie Boutefeu), to come home before it is too late. She also begins a frantic search for her ex-husband Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a neurotic musician just committed to an asylum by his sister, to have him adopt her illegitimate son, Elias (Valentin Lelong), the product of a past, tragic relationship.
Meanwhile, Nora is set to marry Jean-Jacques (Olivier Rabourdin), a taciturn Paris businessman who has yet to hook up with Elias emotionally. Ismael, considered suicidal (hence the stay in a mental hospital), is also flat broke and pursued by the IRS. His drug-abusing lawyer wants to free him from the mental hospital but also wants him declared insane for the fiscal period in question. This synopsis only touches the tip of the iceberg that is “Kings and Queen.”
There is so much more, with so many members of both Nora’s and Ismael’s extended families involved that the lengthy run time (to me!) is not a problem – words that you will very rarely hear come out of my mouth (or from off of my fingers). The drama of a dying father, last confessions, maturity, self-realization, family relationships and friendship are all aspects of this complex drama that, often times, interleaves humor, sometimes slapstick, into the mix.
Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Almaric as Nora and Ismael capably lead the large cast. But it is the story, with its sleight of hand manner of making you believe one thing only to have the truth be something very different, that makes “Kings and Queen” special. The handling of cast, crew and story, by director Arnaud Desplenchin proves so expert and with nuance it makes me want to see his past works and future, too. I give it an A-.
Home | Reviews and Ratings Archive | Top 10 | Video | Crew | Article | Links