Kings and Queen (Roise et Reine) has been heralded as Arnaud Desplechin’s return to the form that produced the splendid Ma Vie Sexuelle. And it is certainly an engrossing labyrinth of a movie ranging thematically from human mythology to the nature of madness, from comedy to tragedy.
When we meet Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) Moon River plays in the background, tipping a wink to Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the mesmerising Holly Golightly. But whereas Audrey Hepburn’s Holly is fragile and ultimately dependent on men, Devos’ Nora is imperious and self-obsessed as she works her way through “kings” – a dead lover, her hapless second husband, her husband-to-be and her father, devoted to the legend of Leda and the Swan, a recurring visual motif.
Her story intertwines with that of her second husband Ismael, a madcap performance by long-time Desplechin collaborator Mathieu Amalric, whom we first encounter being hauled off to hospital by psychiatric nurses. He rages at them in a semblance of desperate sanity undermined by the noose hanging in the middle of his sitting room.
In hospital he is visited by his drug-addled lawyer, Hippolyte Giradot, who persuades him to liberate pills from the medicine store; rants at his psychiatrist, the ever-poised Catherine Deneuve, that women have no souls; and befriends a suicidal girl whose youth is swallowed up by increasingly long periods in psychiatric care thanks to her family.
The two stories collide on the death of Nora’s father, after which she reads his damning indictment of her narcissism. In between all this we learn that she has killed two men, driven one to madness and has a child she seems happy to off-load on the unbalanced Ismael. If it all seems a bit of a muddle then that is because it is, flashing this way and that between grandeur and mundanity, reality and illusion, comedy and tragedy.
Desplechin is undoubtedly ambitious and gifted, but for this reviewer Kings and Queen failed to engage. The whole thing felt manic and unfocused. I longed for the director’s attention span to remain still long enough for its emotions to resonate.
The film is brim full of fine acting. Amalric’s Ismael and Giradot’s lawyer leaven the seriousness with great comic performances. Moreover Amalric moves his character deftly from fool to wise man, creating bathos and pathos as he faces the consequences of his madness for himself and those he loves. Devos is suitably regal in her interpretation of Nora, wallowing in self-pity and rage at her betrayal by her subjects.
But ultimately these self-obsessed charecters repulsed me, not least in their treatment of Nora’s 10-year old son – by the time Ismael explains why he cannot adopt him I was ready to dial social services. In fact, when Moon River struck up again at the end it was a less elevated movie than Breakfast at Tiffany’s that sprung to mind, it was Slap Her, She’s French.