Kings and Queen / Arnaud Desplechin / 2004 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Acting; Emotional honesty; Stylized direction
Side Effects: Length; Dialogue-heavy script


Like the best Woody Allen films, Kings and Queen boldly endeavors to blend the tragedy and comedy of life. It’s not enough to simply mix tones or narrative perspectives, however, it takes a dedication to finding truthful moments to make this premise succeed. Whether a scene is designed to provoke tears or laughter, it always lovingly foregrounds the rocky emotional terrain of his characters. Nora, sincere but uptight, is losing her father to cancer and struggling to connect with those whom she loves or once loved. Meanwhile, her ex-husband Ismaël—intense, ornery and unhinged—is unwillingly committed to a psychiatric hospital. His hilariously eloquent and frustrated outbursts at his Kafka-esque predicament recall Withnail and I. Like that film, Kings and Queen is funny because its comedy comes from the well-observed desperation of its characters. Ismaël is adrift just like Nora, only the film depicts it by emulating his sarcasm and wit.

By focusing on emotional truth rather than narrative linearity, director Arnaud Desplechin is free to explore creative ways to track his story, skillfully varying rhythms and juxtaposing meaningful moments. For example, he jump-cuts through one important conversation, showing only the moments most representative of the emotions of the scene. This highly-stylized manic approach occasionally makes his characters seem too conveniently candid or talky, but he and his actors imbue them with depth and save them from one-dimensionality. Desplechin’s unconventional storytelling would surely have collapsed behind weaker performances. Mathieu Amalric as Ismaël is particularly game, finding a touchingly wounded soul behind his character’s humor and eccentricities. Kings and Queen is risky filmmaking, but the gamble pays off thanks to its subtleties and complexities.