Kings & Queen Review

Arnaud Desplechin has a reputation in French cinema for making difficult films about Parisian intellectuals. His latest film Rois et Reine (‘Kings and Queen’), certainly carries all the hallmarks of those earlier films and a few of his regular actors, but Desplechin widens and deepens the scope of his examination of relationships and in the process makes his most accessible film yet. On its release, the film has caused a bit of a stir in French social circles with the writer and former lover of Desplechin, Marianne Denicourt, finding some of the characteristics and situations of the lead character Nora rather similar to her own. Her response has been a novel ‘Mauvais Génie’, featuring a thinly disguised portrait of the director under the name of Arnold Duplancher. If there is any truth that the Nora of Rois et Reine is based on Denicourt, it’s a devastating portrait in this powerful film of character types and family situations.

Kings & Queen revolves around Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) and the men in her life. On the surface, Nora is a wonderful woman, an elegant and successful lady, she is caring, gentle and kind – taking time out from the preparations for her upcoming marriage and her work dealing in objects of art to visit her young son who is lives with her father. Along the way however we come to see the various men – all of an artistic nature – who have been part of her life and the way they have been affected by her breezy, self-centred attitude towards them and life in general. Pierre, the father of her son, died before he was born and before Nora and he were married, leaving behind a mess of legal problems for Nora to sort out. A poet, his life was intense and brief, burning out like a moth around Nora’s flame. Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), a talented musician and Nora’s second lover, has been mistakenly committed to a psychiatric hospital under the care of Mme Vasset (Catherine Deneuve). While he is trying to get himself free, Nora is also looking for him to take custody of her son Elias, who has grown up with Ismaël. Nora’s father – a celebrated writer, is dying of cancer which has advanced to such a stage that he only has a few days left to live. Faced with events that have resurfaced from her past and a need to reorganise her life, Nora takes charge to make sure that everything is sorted out in a way that causes her as few ripples in her life as possible.

Desplechin’s film presents a rich drama of diverse characteristics that is rather long, but is rarely anything short of compelling, tragic, brutal and funny. Characters are fully developed over the course of the film, surprising the viewer with past revelations and depths that are barely perceptible on the surface to an outside viewer. Nora is the prime motivator in the film, the engine that drives events and pushes characters into situations and is finely played by Emmanuelle Devos (Read My Lips, Comment Je Me Suis Disputé… (Ma Vie Sexuelle)), who never reveals her hand, leaving the viewer uncertain quite how to take her. Does she realise the impact her actions have on those around her or is she as unaware of her own nature as she seems? Is she deliberately calculating and manipulative or is it the fault of those around who are unable to take control of their own lives? The film presents us with a complex, amoral character and lets us witness the potential destructiveness such a person can inadvertently wreak on people of a sensitive artistic nature. Running to over two and a half hours the film would perhaps be over-long for such weighty consideration but it paces itself well, varying the mood and tone with some very funny sequences of Ismaël’s attempts to free himself from the institution he has been committed into. Amalric delivers a richly dynamic performance, expressive in comedic gestures as a hospitalised manic depressive, yet revealing a deep sensitivity and intellectual profundity in his nature. Offered as a contrast to Nora’s superficial control of her emotions and relationships, Ismaël has genuine feeling for other people, but doesn’t always have the frame of mind to be able to express it or cope with it.

The film is perhaps a bit over-harsh and brutal in its final judgement of Nora, if we are to accept the final devastating blow delivered to her. It’s as effective as a hammer to the head – as are some other unexpected revelations over the course of the film that force us to reconsider what we actually know about Nora. There is however no reason we have to accept this as an absolute truth – Ismaël’s advice to Elias at the end of the film holds true for all the character studies presented in the film – we have to accept that we all get things wrong sometimes, and it is this which makes life so wonderful and unpredictable. Kings & Queen presents just such a rich blend of characteristics that are open to interpretation and individual judgement and, in terms of emotional distance travelled and the range of familial bonds examined – between fathers and sons, mothers and fathers, lovers and husbands, between natural and adoptive family members, between the living and the dead – it is something of an epic. Kings & Queen is a masterful film of relationships and family ties, of the bonds that make kings and queens of people and the responsibilities that come with these roles. It’s the kind of film that French cinema does so well having the superlative French acting talent that is needed to make it work.

Kings & Queen is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The DVD is in PAL format and is Region 2 encoded. A French double-disc set contains more features than are available on this release, but nothing particularly more substantial and it does not include English subtitles.

The picture quality is excellent, with not a single mark on the print or any sign of digital artefacts anywhere in the transfer. Colours are fine but, although I can’t recall it with certainty, it seems to me the theatrical presentation was slightly brighter and sharper than it is here. Nevertheless, a little softness in the transfer is really of little consequence. My check disc had a few problems at chapter 11 with the image freezing and skipping. This seemed to be around the layer change and worked ok again midway through the chapter. I’m not sure if this problem exists on retail copies of the disc.

The audio track is a straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix and it’s more than adequate, although the French DVD contains a 5.1 mix.

English subtitles are provided in white font and are optional.

Interview with Mathieu Almaric and Hyppolyte Girardot (19:09)
The two actors, speaking between themselves, reflect on how working with Arnaud Desplechin is unlike working for any other director and how he builds up a character study through them working through the smallest of details and gestures, without them being aware of the big picture.

Interview with Arnaud Desplechin (29:55)
Interviewed in English specially for this release, Desplechin talks about the styles employed in the film, blending melodrama and comedy, popular and high culture, while aspiring to make a very adult movie with the violence and directness of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers or Hitchcock’s Notorious. It’s an interesting enough interview, but might be better if the questions were not edited out and you knew what subjects he was responding to.

Biographies and Filmographies (29:55)
Very brief selected filmographies are presented for Almaric, Desplechin and Devos, with little in the way of biographical information.

Kings & Queen is a hugely ambitious, almost novelistic film about relationships, examining the emotional scope of its characters in a way that only French cinema can do as well as this. The distinctive timing, the intellectual content, the bitter cruelty and the unexpected changes of tone that were already evident in Desplechin’s Comment Je Me Suis Disputé… (Ma Vie Sexuelle) (1996) are here given extra layers of depth by moving away from a small enclosed group of Parisian intellectuals to examine all manner of relationships between people of varying backgrounds and character that only slightly over-reaches with some obscure references to Greek mythology. Its sheer length and range of characters might make it a little too intimidating for many viewers, but this is really a quite stunning tour de force.

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