Charting the various literary sources, mythologies, psychological studies and cinematic antecedents that inform Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen is a fool's errand, more useful in establishing the critic's own range of knowledge than linking all the influences to some narrative importance (read: I am mocking people who are smarter and more well-read than myself, which is a hell of a broad swipe). Taken as a whole, however, these influences reveal the broad size of the film's canvas, Desplechin capturing these little winks (and occasionally vital building blocks) with the same loving detail with which he photographs the mad characters of this melodrama.
Wait, let me back up. Kings and Queen cannot be so easily shoehorned into a single genre, and certainly not into a single cinematic style. At the start of the film, Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), a gorgeous woman who walked out of Botticelli painting and somehow set herself up as a French bourgeoise, speaks in an interview that can only be for the audience. She presents herself as contented and blessed; she's twice-divorced but has found someone she feels is "Mr. Right." This semi-diegetic segment only reveals her capacity for self-deception, however, as her life begins to crumble as soon as the narrative properly begins.
We discover that her first husband, Pierre, impregnated her and committed suicide. Perhaps out of guilt and grief, she rarely sees the son, 10-year-old Elias, that resulted from the relationship. Her second husband, Ismaël, was unfaithful and caused her to leave. Her third, Jean-Jacques, is emotionally and physically distant but rich, which seems to be all Nora really wants from a man at the moment. As we will eventually discover, none of the three is or was ever truly her husband, and all are incompatible with Nora in some way.
The only man she ever loved without reservation is her father, Louis (Maurice Garrel), who complains of stomach pains and heads to the doctor. They operate for an ulcer but instead find cancer, and the doctors tell Nora that his days are numbered. Desplechin juxtaposes her unbridled grief over the news and the continuing trials of her father's pain with the breakdowns of her other relationships; with the latter, she maintains a regal, queenly poise throughout, emotional but collected. With the former, she can barely keep up her façade, her emotional wall breaking at inappropriate times.
The drama of Nora's story is contrasted with Desplechin's look at the current predicament of Nora's second beau, Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric). A brilliant violist, Ismaël owes 700,000 francs to the French IRS and is stirred from blast hip-hop in his apartment by two hospital staffers (whom he dubs Prospero and Caliban) who've come to take him to a mental ward. This scene is both wildly comedic and humanizing, as Desplechin and Amalric temper the abrasiveness of Ismaël's refusal to go along with the staffers with a quick look inside his apartment at a noose and Amalric's deflated delivery of "I just need to know that I can do it."
Whereas Nora hides her foibles behind her stoic mask, Ismaël is a torrent of madness. In a conversation with the hospital psychiatrist (Catherine Deneuve), he launches into a misogynistic tirade about how women have "no souls." In one riotous scene -- set to hysterically jaunty jazz music, no less -- Ismaël raids the hospital pharmacy to hook his lawyer up with some meds. Amalric finds the perfect note for the character, indulging in such farcical activities while presenting Ismaël's madness with a believable humanity. While committed in the hospital, he meets Arielle, an attractive young lady in the hospital for yet another suicide attempt, and the two find comfort in each other's madness.
With these disparate stories, Desplechin crafts a world as richly layered as an Altman or early Paul Thomas Anderson work, jumping across perspectives to chart the mad, mad world we've all made for ourselves. Yet where Altman roamed his characters' lives with a decidedly ironic view, Desplechin succeeds in adding a believable emotional core where Anderson's Magnolia attempted the same but fell into OTT melodrama. Devos plays Nora as a Hitchcockian ice-queen (it's no coincidence that Catherine Deneuve's character instantly takes Nora in when she comes to the office) undergoing a Bergmanesque crisis of personal faith. She's sympathetic even though she drove one lover to suicide, neglects her son and worries more about her image than her mental state. When she at last breaks down completely, Louis' home nurse acts as our stand-in as she attempts to comfort Nora, who simply waves her (and us) away, unable to bear the thought of someone seeing her emotionally naked. Amalric, on the other hand, can place all of Ismaël's swirling emotions on display -- raging at the world in eloquent, well-read tirades, spontaneously breakdancing, detailing erotic dreams with his anti-Freudian therapist (whose very name strikes fear into the hearts of the hospital staff) -- and if anything we can sympathize with his arrogant madness more because he's venting his sins as Nora internalizes hers.
With these two characters serving as checkpoints, Desplechin uses Kings and Queen to examine what defines us, perhaps not as humans but at least in terms of social perception. Arielle is a white Frenchwoman, but people refer to her as "La chinoise" (the Chinese girl) because she's studying sinology, a sobriquet not used for the pharmacy's Asian clerk. A recurring motif of the story involves the idea of adoption: Nora, desperate to find a father figure for Elias (and perhaps someone to do the child-rearing for her), asks Ismaël to adopt him as the boy always liked Ismaël best. Desplechin subverts our expectations of the difference between biological relation and adoption, though, with an extraneous but vital scene. Ismaël visits his Alzheimer's-stricken grandmother, who recognizes her grandson but cannot remember if he's related by blood or adoption. His mother says that she gave birth to Ismaël, and the grandmother is happy. But when Ismaël's father, whom the grandmother also recognizes, reminds her that she adopted him, without batting an eyelash she responds, "Well, that's good too." Near the end, Ismaël declares his love for Arielle while wearing a Musketeer cape, and suddenly his expression of madness becomes a symbol of the noble heart beneath his rough exterior. Desplechin doesn't care so much about the labels we assign ourselves or are assigned to us but what they might mean to the people they label. In his world, people don't abandon labels but create them through their actions and passions and not through skin color or lineage.
An exception, though, is gender. When Nora gave birth to Elias, she could not place Pierre's name on the child's birth certificate because the couple were unwed and he died without leaving any indication that he would recognize the child as his own. Obviously, the female cannot deny the child that comes from her wound, and the stress of wondering if her child will be "accepted" perhaps informs her ongoing struggle to assign him an documented father figure. Elias, Pierre, Ismaël and Louis make up the titular Kings of the story, and all have an emotional freedom not afforded to the Queen, who must keep her poise even as her world crumbles around her.
For all of these profound statements, however, Desplechin has a touch of the trickster about him, and Kings and Queen teems with moments that play with our usual expectations. His shots of Nora tend to be hand-held and erratic compared to her cool exterior where the explosive Ismaël's shots are more refined, the camera mounted on a stand or a crane. When Arielle describes her suicide attempt to Ismaël, Desplechin inserts a brief shot of her making a crude, joking face that may or may not be real but is an insight to her inner turmoil nonetheless. Returning the Bergman connection I made earlier, Kings and Queen features appearances from ghosts that recalls the master's Fanny and Alexander. Two ghosts feature in Nora's story: the first, her lover Pierre's, is forgiving and mature in death where he wasn't in life.
The second apparition offers the film's most powerful sequence; Louis' disease finally takes its toll, and Nora cleans out his residence after the funeral. Nora finds a letter addressed to her in his unfinished manuscript, but instead of playing the usual, trite voiceover, Desplechin cuts to a vision of the father sitting in a room so spare it's unsettling. He recites the contents of the letter directly to the camera, damning his daughter's hypocrisy and vanity with such stunning force that even Garrel's barely emotive, even somewhat wistful delivery is as scathing as the loudest screams. Around the same time, Ismaël, rehabilitated and released, must field a similar attack from the lead violin in his quartet. Both characters richly deserve the tongue-lashings they receive, but we take no pleasure from these diatribes, nor does Desplechin intend or want us to do so.
Kings and Queen opens with a retelling the story of Leda, a Greek woman seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan. Nora buys a painting depicting the story for her father, a Greek professor, a symbol of her Electra complex hilariously suggested by Louis' publisher as the cover for the book that will eventually contain Louis' scalding letter. This joke is so layered into the story that I didn't even catch until I went and watched this a second time, which I did almost immediately after watching it the first. There's also a broadly comedic moment just after that devastating monologue by the dead father, in which Ismaël reconnects with his own father, Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), just as some youths attempt to rob the tough old man's grocery. The resulting failed robbery is brilliant in its dark humor, and only funnier when you place it in the context of what came before it.
That warped mélange of comedy, drama, formalist technique and New Wave unpredictability results in one of the most rewarding films I've seen of the last few years, almost as complete in its world creation and critique as Edward Yang's Yi Yi. He extracts the best from his actors, and together they chart character evolutions so masterfully paced that you don't realize someone has changed until something wholly unlike that character is revealed. Ismaël, initially a childish, narcissistic bundle of nerves, is allowed the film's most bare moment of wisdom at the end, as he imparts advice upon young Elias. "You need an extra adult to help you grow,: he says, "so you're not shut up in the love between parents...and children." With his beautiful, protracted speech, he breaks the child free of the trap that ensnared the boy's mother and grandfather, and we look to Elias' future with hope. How wonderful it is that we do the same with the adults, too.