Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Kings and Queen (2004)

Kings and Queen (2004) ****
Directed by: Arnaud Desplechin.
Written by: Arnaud Desplechin & Roger Bohbot.
Starring: Emmanuelle Devos (Nora Cotterelle), Mathieu Amalric (Ismaë Vuillard), Olivier Rabourdin (Jean-Jacques), Maurice Garrel (Louis Jenssens), Valentin Lelong (Elias Cotterelle), Geoffrey Carey (Claude), Thierry Bosc (M. Mader), François Toumarkine (Prospero), Miglen Mirtchev (Caliban), Jean-Paul Roussillon (Abel Vuillard), Catherine Rouvel (Monique Vuillard), Catherine Deneuve (Mme Vasset), Noémie Lvovsky (Elizabeth), Jan Hammenecker (Nicolas), Nathalie Boutefeu (Chloé Jenssens), Joachim Salinger (Pierre Cotterelle), Elsa Wolliaston (Dr. Devereux).

There is no timidness in the films of Arnaud Desplechin. He is fond of big emotions, mixing genres and films about families who would most likely be wise to disband. His latest film was A Christmas Tale (2008), about a family gathering for the first time in years, because the matriarch (Catherine Denueve) is dying and wants all of her children, who have been squabbling for years, together one last time. Before that, he made Kings and Queen (2004) a film that mixes a similar family melodrama, with a comedy about a man in a mental hospital, that turns out to be completely different that we expect it to be.

The film opens with Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) looking into the camera and telling us about her life. She is certainly the “Queen” of the title, and she tells us about her “kings”. Her first husband, who killed himself and left her pregnant, but who she sometimes sees and talks to. Her now 11 year old son Elias, who she adores, but worries that she won’t be able to raise him properly. Her dying father, who she thinks loves her a great deal. Her fiancée, a rich man, who provides safety and security, if not exactly love. And finally, her second husband, a famed violinist named Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), who is eccentric in the extreme, and is not only the man who ends up in a mental hospital, but also the man she thinks may be the best person to raise her son.

The film is a balancing act between the melodrama that Nora finds herself in the center of – dealing with her dying father, and a distant sister, who wants so badly to be with her father at the end of his life, but can somehow, never find her way there – and the comedy of Ismael in the mental hospital, where if he doesn’t act quite like RP McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he certainly does grab the attention of his doctors with his theory that women do not have souls – this does not go over particularly well with either his first doctor, Catherine Denueve, nor his second, Elsa Wolliaston.

The movie proceeds in this fashion for nearly two hours, before Desplachin drops a bombshell on his audience and the characters, that changes everything we think we know about the movie and the characters in it. It turns out that not everything we have seen in the movie is entirely accurate – and that Nora, who has functioned as our narrator, is not quite the queen she has portrayed herself as. As a letter from her father surfaces, one of the most viscious letters in cinema history, we are forced to reevaluate her, Ismae, and everything we thought we knew about what had happened. It also brings just what a tour de force job Desplechin has done as an writer and director has done, and in particular just how wonderful Davos is in the lead role. It truly is one of the best performances of the last decade.

Kings and Queen shows Desplechin with his powers at full blast. He is never going to be a director who takes things easy – he thinks big, and while some will undoubtedly complain that Kings and Queens is far too long, and that Desplechin indulges himself too much with all the tangents and side trips he takes during the movie, you cannot deny just the sheer audacity it took to make this film. He is now officially one of my absolute favorite filmmakers in the world right now – and Kings and Queen just be may his masterwork.

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