'Rois et Reine' - Arnaud Desplechin, 2004, France
Arnaud Desplechin’s ‘Kings and Queen’ looks the part: it is well performed, occasionally funny, looks slick, looks good and feels breezy. It also demonstrates what happens when a film's character's become increasingly annoying. It runs on two parallel stories of a woman Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) about to remarry, suffering the terminal illness of her father and trying to get her ex-husband to adopt her son. The ex-husband is Ismael (Matthieu Amalric), a viola player who spends his time battling authority figures, being contrary and insufferable and getting committed to a mental health hospital.
The film is too long and so gradually exposing that there is less to these characters than their emotional outcries and tics. The script runs on Ismael’s arrogance and intolerable behaviour and Nora’s grief and reflections. At first, we might believe there is something righteous or motivated at the former, and something touching and revealing about the latter: then it becomes apparent that the emotional motivation of the relationships depicted in the film are driven by faux-angst and that there will be nothing to truly interrogate the behaviour and narcissism of our protagonists. Empathy wanes as more and more whimsy and scenes are thrown on top of one another.
When we find that there is nothing but boorishness and pretension to Ismael, that he has not really been misunderstood much at all, then his forced incarceration seems sensible enough. He would probably think it justifies his denunciation of the world and people around him and therefore his immaturity. He is not proving a thing. The film is also tiresomely flippant about the relationship between mental illness and the artiste, that the artistic sensibility must be irresponsible and irrepressible, that any conflict with reality and accountability can only result in frictions of ‘insane’ behaviour. His scenes add up to less and less. Finally, there is a funny but deeply irrelevant robbery attempt on his father’s store: it’s a highlight, but it amounts to nothing.
When we find that Nora is actually a egotistical bore, whispering to her first husband (well, they marry after he dies, but…) that she is his “nightmare” into his ear as he sleeps, driving him to a spontaneous and successful suicide attempt… it is then that we find that the touching hospital scene where Nora dreams a conversation with him (in a gentle style that reminds me of the films of the Taviani brothers) was in fact built upon bad self-indulgent theatre dramatics. Oh, how young tortured love drives le artiste to express himself with impromptu Russian Roulette! And when the saddening and affecting tale of Nora sitting with her father through his terminal cancer culminates in her father’s deathbed condemnation of her egoism, one wonders where it sprang from. She’s problematic but she is hardly Betty Blue. Is it just that the script wants to have him talk about how they seduced one another (no, not incestuously but poetically) and how he wishes she would die rather than him, that he will die with hatred in his heart for her or to know what it amounts to. It is hard to locate the foundations of this hatred: is it in his complicity in covering for Nora over her first husband’s death? Is there an abundance of condemnably selfish conduct that she exhibits that we do not see?
What seems to be at stake is the welfare of Elias, Nora’s son, who drifts tokenly in and out occasionally. Nora says he is the centre of her world, and it is hard to doubt she thinks so, but she spends most of her time finding someone else to take care of him. What is it that she does? Her little gallery? Is this a problem of the privileged that can afford such things? He seems to have been taken care of mostly by his grandfather, who when in a sickly state she decided not to bring Elias to see: this being more to do with her suffering and repulsion at the old man’s condition. Then the boy is sent to friends. Then a nanny gets mentioned. Elias does not like his new stepfather, so Nora’s solution is to have Ismael adopt him in a plan that does seem remarkably selfish and irresponsible. We are to take it that Ismael was good with Elias when he was married to Nora and yet truly one would not trust Ismael with a pencil sharpener. Elias himself is precocious and seemingly palmed around and yet impervious to the inane self-absorption of the adults. When this overarching theme comes to its conclusion, Ismael takes Elias out around some museum to tell him that he will not be adopting him and to waffle on a bunch of meaningless pretentions and pointless posturings which, again, have less to do with anyone else other than Ismael himself.
Overlong, over-indulged, well performed and presented; nevertheless any emotional poignancy disappoints in the egotism of the characters and the failure of the script to cross-examine and explain their behaviour so that their self-absorption and this production means something.