Kings and Queen
In film, the classic approach is to tell a story without letting the audience notice the technique. A director challenges this idea at his own risk. Often the result is style for its own sake--"showing off." Or we get a "self-reflexive" work, all surface, or glib and meaningless homage to other films. But when the style succeeds at being an overt, dynamic element of the narrative, the result is something fresh and exciting that sustains my faith in pictures. This is why I'm in love with Kings and Queen, Arnaud Desplechin's wildly robust movie-making experiment--it allows the joyous energy of film style to come on stage and play a central part in the story, a fascinating, imperfect family melodrama-comedy of intentional errors.
Kings and Queen follows two main characters. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), is a single mother about to get married again (for the third time, or is it the second?), who goes to visit her aging father (Maurice Garrel), a prominent writer who, as it turns out, is dying of stomach cancer. Her ex-partner Ismaël, (Mathieu Almaric) is a mercurial, self-centered, tax-evading viola player who finds himself suddenly committed to a psych hospital and has to go about pulling some legal strings to get himself out.
Nora is haunted by dreams and memories of her first husband (Joachim Salinger), who died before their son was born. In the midst of the crisis around her father's cancer, she decides to ask Ismaël to adopt her young son Elias, who loves him and doesn't get along with her wealthy fiancé. In the hospital, Ismaël clashes with an unflappable psychiatrist (Catherine Deneuve), and pals around with the seemingly insouciant, yet suicidal Arielle (Magalie Woch), while his hyperactive, drug addict lawyer (Hippolyte Girardot) tries to get him out of his medical and financial predicaments.
I present here only the framework of the story. The film shoots off into other characters and subplots, with each tangent revealing new layers and relationships. Desplechin's sense of freedom is infectious--I followed him willingly into every detour, because all the characters, major or minor, have their feet planted firmly in their own stories, stories in which each of them is the main character. This method may seem peculiar, but it corresponds to the experience of life. In the same fashion, Desplechin knows that life doesn't have neat beginnings and endings like stories do, nor does it really go in a straight line. So the film jumps back and forth in time, memories and fantasies intrude on the present -- sometimes you're not sure whether something is actually happening, or if it's just someone's faulty version of the truth. The visual style matches the messy humanism of the script. Jump cuts introduce a slight discontinuity into the scenes. Sometimes the camera angle will switch to the opposite point of view in a scene, right in the middle of a shot, and then back again. Subjectivity is the measure of all things, rather than the idea of one true objective story happening outside of us. The editing rhythm doesn't feel mechanical, as is often the case when a director is just showing off. It has the vitality and restlessness of an excited and curious mind.
This film doesn't make anything easy for you. We have to stay alert, and accept that there may be no final answers to the questions that arise in the lives of the characters. These people aren't just one thing; they don't represent ideas--they're many opposite things all together, which is just the point (as painful as this may be) to the drama of being human. Devos anchors the movie with a beautiful, subtle, passionate performance. Nora must be strong to survive--and sometimes this means, oddly enough, remaining a mystery to herself. Almaric is bright and funny and a tad exaggerated in his iconoclastic behavior. Ismaël can be irritating--he's a force of anarchy, with a redeeming capacity for love and understanding, especially for the boy Elias. The director has a talent for letting the actors play with their roles and expand into realms that may not have been mapped out in the script. This doesn't always work, but when it does, it seems inspired, like Ismaël's break-dancing routine in the hospital.
Drawing attention to the fact that we're watching a film, without sabotaging our absorption in the film--it's a real tightrope act, a gamble the director obviously relishes. What are we to think, for instance, about the decision to open and close the film with a solo guitar version of "Moon River," a song permanently associated with another film? Desplechin wants to acknowledge that film music ends up as a soundtrack in our own heads, and in fact the occasional orchestral music in the film consciously evokes the stereotypical film motifs of suspense, humor, tragedy, or romance, as experienced by the point-of-view character in the scene. Similarly, the elements of memory and dream, as well as sudden shifts into comic or even action-film genre styles (such as a bizarre later scene with Ismaël's father foiling a robbery in his store), do not intrude into the film as authorial asides. They are woven into the tale as an integral part of how it must feel to be these particular people in these situations. Yet the director presents the story to us as a literary work, divided into titled sections. He enjoys shattering the naturalistic pretense, while staying true to the inner aspects of life.
The picture is about a woman's psychological struggles, motherhood, relationships, guilt, men who won't grow up, fathers and daughters, sisters and brothers, letting go of loved ones, the way hate mixes itself up with love, and many other things as well. This film stretches itself, and our perspective as viewers, to encompass the richness of life. The intensely personal, flamboyant style stands in the foreground, allowing the possibilities of the story, of experience, to expand and meet it. With Kings and Queen, the road of excess has led to a palace of crazy wisdom.
©2005 Chris Dashiell