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Kings and Queen

This very interesting French film fluctuates from comedy to drama as it follows the relationships of headstrong Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) with the four most important males in her life: her father, her young son, her son’s late father, and with Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), her now-estranged boyfriend whom she became involved with after her son’s father died nearly a decade earlier in a mysterious accident.   As the film begins Nora has learned that her father is in the end stages of terminal cancer; elsewhere Ismael has been committed to a nuthouse by a third party, putatively to keep him from offing himself.  

Mathieu Amalric’s work as Ismael imparts to the film its ironic humor that just skirts the gallows.   When we first meet Ismael he appears to be a suicidal nutter: he’s got a noose hanging from the ceiling of his apartment.   However, he insists that it’s just there because it comforts him to know that he’s got that option if he wants it.   Though a bit broken, Ismael is irrepressible: as played by Amalric he’s by turns mad, obstinate, warm, essentially goodhearted.   Of the years Ismael spent helping to raise Nora’s child, we are shown only one sequence, of Ismael helping the boy to climb a tree and play in its branches, but it’s enough to establish what sort of person he is.   In fact, though her relationship with Ismael is over, it is Nora who insists on the important part he played in the boy’s formative years.  

The film’s title, “Kings and Queen”, can I believe be explained by Nora’s gift to her father, a scholar of ancient Greece, of a painting of “Leda and the Swan”.   Leda, of course, was queen of Sparta and out of her union with the swan (Zeus) was “hatched” Helen, thereby making Leda indirectly responsible for the Trojan War and the kings who sailed to retrieve Helen from Troy.   King Agamenon’s murder at the hands of Helen’s sister Clytemnestra perhaps ties into the themes of family strife and murder which emerge in the film’s second half, which serves to upend nearly all of the assumptions we made during the first.   “Leda and the Swan” is also a poem by Yeats, which ties into a therapy session in which Ismael recounts a bizarre dream which amusingly turns out to be based upon Yeats’ poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”.  

This is one of the more interesting films I’ve seen this year.   Directed and co-written by Arnaud Desplechin with an interesting mix of techniques including documentary-like sequences in which Nora directly addresses the camera.   And if all that’s not enough, we’re also treated to a cameo from the great Catherine Deneuve as a psychiatric nurse who remains unflappable in the face of Ismael’s provocations.

- Jun 3, 2005  

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