Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Kings and Queen

After two months in my possession I finally got around to watching Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen." Finally! Was it worth the wait? Yes, but its rewards are something the viewer has to work to earn.

There is usually a point while watching a highly acclaimed foreign film that I have to remind myself that I'm supposed to like the movie. "This is good," I tell myself, "you have to like it." More often than not I do like the movie, but other times I'm just bewildered and made to feel like I somehow missed the point stupid American that I am. This internal dialogue occurred early on during the two-and-a-half hour running time of "Kings and Queen." What exactly was the point of these two parallel stories? We have Nora's story, a seemingly glamorous and luminous woman, who discovers that her father is dying, and we have Ismael, Nora's ex, who is confined against his will in a psychiatric hospital. Nora's story is all pathos, while Ismael's is madcap. We assume that Nora is our heroine, whose fortunes we are meant to care about, while Ismael is the character we find entertaining but ultimately dismiss as trifling. Eventually we'll see the two confront each other and we expect Nora to be triumphant.

Desplechin, though, is far too sophisticated for something so banal and predictable. Halfway through the film, he coyly pulls the rug from beneath the viewer's feet. He does so quietly but powerfully. We discover things about the characters that make us question their morality and sense of obligation. As the film goes on, we realize that Nora isn't the put-together, empathetic character we might have presumed and Ismael has more depth than we gave him credit for. "Kings and Queen" isn't a story about the conflicts between these two but rather we view their plights in parallel. Nora and Ismael's fortunes don't rise and fall in unison. Instead they move towards opposite poles. We soon view Nora as selfish, an egotist prone to using the men in her life for her gain, and that includes taking advantage of her father's affection for her. The film does not depict Nora as evil or corrupt, merely that she is a woman with moral flaws beneath her seemingly perfect existence. Ismael's development moves him toward a deeper understanding of relationships, family, and what it means to need people in your life. Nora marries a rich but dull man she clearly doesn't love out of convenience, while Ismael erratically pursues happiness. Desplechin doesn't judge who's right or who's wrong, only that this is how it is. Life is full of compromises because sometimes that is the only way it can be made bearable.

At two and a half hours, "Kings and Queen" is too long. It moves deliberately and takes its time to develop its characters and their motivations, and in the end, it works in giving us hot-blooded, real characters and situations. The characters played by Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric are complex creations. They don't play types; they inhabit real people. Although "Kings and Queen" may be a chore to watch at times, it is also a fascinating film, beautiful and complex. I liked it.

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