Grand Allusions

Arnaud Desplechins Kings and Queen mixes high and low culture

The sly French actress Emmanuelle Devos, who plays a suffering minx in Arnaud Desplechin's exhilarating new film Kings and Queen, has a slack, ripe mouth, a mane of untidy brown hair and china-doll blue eyes that, on first acquaintance, seem vacant or evasive. Devos can vanish into herself and turn primly mousy, or blossom into ripe seductiveness, with a touch of the insolent slattern. In Jacques Audiard's 2002 movie Read My Lips, she morphed so slowly and secretively from dumpy office drudge to radiant lover, you could barely see the actress at work. Difficult as it is to remember the contours of that malleable face once you leave the theater, it lingers with you like some blank slate across which worlds of emotion have passed, then drifted away.

It's easy to see why Devos—who's appeared in all but one of Desplechin's films, including the 2000 release Esther Kahn—has become something of a muse to the director, whose gloriously overstuffed movies riff on the seemingly limitless plasticity of mood and experience. In Kings and Queen she plays Nora, a pretty art dealer and single mother whose tumultuous past, the stuff of soap opera and Shakespearean tragedy, appears at the outset to be settling into contented stability. Nora has suffered the death of one husband and divorce from another, and she's about to marry a businessman whose wealth is alluring but whose stifling devotion and lack of chemistry with her little boy, Elias (Valentin Lelong), irritate the hell out of her. For all her emotional reserve, learned at the knee of her embittered but loving father (Maurice Garrel), Nora attracts trouble like nectar to a swarm of killer bees. As the promise of her orderly life collapses into serial crises that wouldn't seem out of place on As the World Turns, her resemblance to that other trapped Nora, in Ibsen's A Doll's House, is inescapable. And that's not all: A few discreet bars of "Moon River" in the opening scene also cast Nora as a restless Holly Golightly. Later she will emerge as a scheming hussy right out of Greek mythology, and as the favorite daughter, obsessively attached but riding for a fall, of a Lear-like father.

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Desplechin often crowds his movies to the breaking point, dropping cultural references with promiscuous abandon as he blithely bridges high and pop culture. Kings and Queen is a nimble fusion of two movies, Nora's full-court melodrama intertwined with a trippy farce centered on her ex-husband, Ismaël (see Moby Dick, and the biblical Isaac's itinerant half brother), who's wonderfully rendered by Mathieu Amalric, a hypomanic Desplechin regular—he played Devos' boyfriend in 1996's My Sex Life . . . Or How I Got Into an Argument—and very likely a stand-in for the famously voluble director. A violist prone to poetic effusions who keeps a noose suspended from his apartment ceiling, Ismaël is arbitrarily incarcerated in a mental hospital (under the care of a psychiatrist amusingly played by Catherine Deneuve in full iceberg mode) from which he spends much of the movie trying to escape, only to find his life spinning further out of control when he succeeds. Stuffed with warring siblings, amped ancillary players and a clutch of hot current topics (among them drug addiction, psychoanalysis and assisted suicide), Kings and Queen is contemporary and specific—this is life in all its magnificent incompleteness, raised to the power of a thousand—but the melodramas also play out on a universal plane, like the lives of the gods, with their backfiring plots and backstabbings, their violent love affairs and craven betrayals.

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In less assured hands, Desplechin's formal hijinks—he tracks his stories back and forth in time, switches genres on a dime, and casually subjects his ambiguous heroine to visits from her lover and her father, both dead—might come off as trendy, or as mere whimsy. For all its hectic comings and goings, though, Kings and Queen is superbly controlled, gracefully shot and edited, and, for its entire 150 minutes, as engrossing as its meanings are opaque. Still, you have to wonder about the moral landscape mapped out in this eagerly perverse picture. In interviews, Desplechin has lovingly pegged Nora as a tragic heroine, yet there's something malicious, almost vengeful, in the way he heaps turmoil on her. Devos skillfully runs up and down the range of this ambiguous heroine, but the longer we know Nora, the less likable and the more callow she grows. By the time she announces serenely, "I've loved four men, and killed two," it's far from clear whether, beyond mere survival, she has earned her peace. Nora's dicey character has prompted a former lover of Desplechin, who claims the movie is based on their life together, to write a novel featuring a thinly disguised stand-in for the director as an unsympathetic player. Wittingly or not, Desplechin firmly skews our sympathies toward Ismaël, who starts off imprisoned and grows freer with each passing scene, just as Nora starts off liberated, only to become a prisoner of her past. In a bravura epilogue that brings the motormouthed screenplay (co-written by Desplechin and Roger Bohbot) to a dazzling climax, Ismaël wanders through a Paris museum with his stepson Elias, explaining why he decided not to adopt him even though Nora begged him to. Initially crestfallen, the boy bucks up as he gets the pep talk of his life, a rambling, elegant discourse on the costs and benefits of introversion, on the imagination as a sanctuary, and on how "being a bit wrong is very good news." The parent-child bond, Ismaël tells him, has its virtues, but it's no help when it comes to growing up. Nora, who has discovered this the hard way, waits smiling in the wings.

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