Kings & Queen

May, 2005, Drama

France takes artistic expressions of its culture with considerable seriousness, as the recent book French Cultural Policy Debates amply demonstrates. In it, author Andre Malraux, former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang and sociologist Pierre-Felix Bourdieu explore how theatre, painting opera & film "shape… a debate concerning the relations between culture, democracy, the economy technology and the State." And you thought you went to the movies for the popcorn and juju fruits…

At their best, films like Talk to Me, Read My Lips and Man on the Train do indeed reveal aspects of French national culture with disarming subtly. As a result, American audiences get the opportunity to experience the nuances of another country's approach to values and institutions which quite often lead to different interpretations of the world we share, adding a bit of anthropological spice to the cinematic mix. All this works best however, if the director and screenwriter wrap their editorializing around a genuinely interesting story presented through attractive characters. (A case in point: the Italian film The Best of Youth speaks volumes about the national characteristics of that country's citizens via a commercial television series shown here as a pair of long movies.)

Arnaud Desplechin, (a French director noted for tackling stories that purport to interpret the meaning of life for his countrymen) garnered considerable European praise for this, his latest film--but I doubt it will do well with American audiences, who'll find its artful digressions and rambling soliloquies more ponderous than insightful.

Kings revolves around Nora Cotterelle and the four men in her life--her professorial father, only son Elias, the lover who fathered her child and Ismael, the concert violist who shared her life for six tumultuous years and helped raise her son. She and the frenetic musician are separated when the movie opens; Nora is about to marry a wealthy businessman who'll provide security if not passionate vitality, a trait Ismael possesses in such quantities it's landed him in a mental hospital. 

Over the course of the film's 2½ hours, these one-time lovers will confront their private demons as they interact with respective family members and friends in ways that are best described by the yes-but style of so many pretentious art-house movies. Yes, Ismael's compulsive stream-of-consciousness rants are annoying, but doesn't he possess a raw appetite for life like Jack Nicholson's Randle McMurphy, the iconic rebel in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest?  Yes, Nora's decision to distance herself from the artistic life Ismael offers to settle instead for a petit bourgeois existence with her fiancée does render her banal, but doesn't her relationship with son Elias and her terminally ill father suggest that Nora's already absorbed the lessons of ennui which permeate Francoise Sagan's depiction of upper-class French life in Bonjour Tristesse? Yes, the psychiatrist played by Catherine Deneuve prattles on about Ismael's condition without making any sense at all, but isn't she stunning at age 62, smoking her Gauloise like a member of the French resistance in WW II?

Emmanuelle Devos, (Talk to Me) manages to make Nora initially interesting; armed with a darting smile and eyes that hint at conflicting emotions lurking deep in the recesses of her wounded heart, Nora's flight from emotional fulfillment to crass financial security makes her unfolding story worth the initial attention Desplechin devotes to it. But as Ismael, Mathieu Amalric--inexplicably awarded France's Cesar as Best Actor--quickly grows annoying as the manic-depressive artist forced to live under the stifling dictates and bureaucratic rules of middle-brow Gallic life. Ostensibly the embodiment of a contemporary social critic, Ismael's rants, comedic flailing and reflections on friendship, fatherhood and sexual faithfulness ooze through the script, emerging  as tell-tale signals of massive self-absorption. At the film’s end, he's lost Nora, declined to be guardian of her son and seen his viola confiscated by the quartet whose work he's so often disrupted with his seemingly charming irrepressibility. The director obviously intends Ismael to be purposively disturbing; unfortunately, he's merely annoying.

In presenting the parallel lives of these star-crossed lovers, Desplechin burdens his presentation with editing decisions that confuse the film's continuity and drain it of sustained dramatic impact; Nora's reflections on her marriage, the birth of her son and her years with Ismael are interspersed with those in which she attends to her father during the last weeks of his life; when these portions of the movie are further fractured by segments about Ismael that have nothing to do with Nora, the momentum of the movie ebbs and flows in ways that make it both hard to follow and even harder to enjoy. 

Kings is not without merit; Devos is always interesting to watch and that portion of the movie which deals with her father's death impressively reflects the hard lessons about terminal illness taught by Dr. Shep Nuland in his award-winning book How We Die; but about half way through, Kings fails the all important "seat of the pants" test. By the final reel, the audience we saw it with was audibly and visibly ready to move on.

The Verdict? Unless you revel in the pretentious, you should move on to a different movie. 

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