Kings And Queen (rois et reine) directed by Arnaud Desplechin, written by Desplechin and Roger Bohbot, with Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Catherine Deneuve and Hippolyte Girardot. 150 minutes. Subtitled. Friday (June 30) and Saturday (July 1) at Cinematheque Ontario, then moves July 7 to the Carlton. 416-968-FILM. See Indie & Rep Film, page 113. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Arnaud Desplechin's been coming closer and closer to making a great film since his 1992 feature debut, La Sentinelle. He works deliberately, releasing a new film every three or four years, and they are long because they need to be. Whether it's the intellectual gabfest Comment Je Me Suis Desputé... (Ma Vie Sexuelle) or the three-hour period oddity Esther Kahn, no one can accuse his work of lacking incidents.
His newest, the awkwardly titled Kings And Queen, veers back and forth between overripe melodrama and manic tragicomedy, depending on whether the focus is on Emmanuelle Devos's Nora, a single mother about to remarry, or her ex-husband, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), a bipolar musician who suddenly finds himself institutionalized by a third party, possibly his sister.
As if trying to prove themselves just as capriciously weird as the Oscars, the Césars virtually shut out the two best French films of 2005 - Michael Haneke's Caché (see DVD reviews, page 114) and Kings And Queen - in favour of The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Jacques Audiard's remake of James Toback's Fingers.
However, the Césars did honour Amalric's astonishing performance. American audiences may recognize him from his turn as Louis, the icy purveyor of information to the Israeli assassination team in Steven Spielberg's Munich. In French films, he's an actor of brilliant instability, like a Woody Allen character haunted by his own hyper-aware sense of irony. The perfect portrayer of Desplechin's passionately erratic characters, he also played the lead in Comment Je Me Suis Disputé.
Here, Desplechin sets us up to think that Nora, committed to her son and desperately attentive to her dying father, is our anchor. Yet her emotional responses are always just a bit over the top. Ismael is, well, crazy, because he acts crazy and people keep telling us he's crazy, including his cool-as-a-cucumber shrink, played by Catherine Deneuve. Okay, she never actually says it, but we can see it in her compassion, because pity looks the same in every culture.
If Desplechin is a maddeningly inconsistent filmmaker, he's also constitutionally incapable of making a film that is what it seems to be. Kings And Queen looks like an over-the-top melodrama studded with comic bits like Hippolyte Girardot's hilarious turn as Ismael's pill-popping lawyer.
But as he starts pulling the narrative rug out from under characters and audience, Desplechin also investigates how we create narratives out of lives, editing and altering things to fit our needs. Though Nora may be our protagonist, she's not trustworthy. Though Ismael seems mad, he never lies.
Kings And Queen is a comedy, a drama and a benediction. Moments of extraordinary emotional grace resonate in the transgenerational encounters between Nora and her dead father 's writings, and between Ismael and the stepson he'll never keep.
I've seen this film three times and am convinced that it has still more to show me. Think I'll see it again when it hits the Carlton after the Cinematheque screenings.