Poetic Convulsions

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Review of 'Kings and Queen', director Arnaud Desplechin

Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen is a dark melodrama about a troubled woman, Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), and the men in her life.

Nora leaves Paris, where she owns an art gallery, to visit her father, a writer, on his birthday, and also to see her young son who lives with his granddad. Only a few moments after Nora's dad has opened his birthday gift, he must be taken into hospital because of stomach aches. The doctors diagnose cancer. He has only a few more days to live. After sleepless nights, Nora finally dozes off in the hospital corridor outside her father's room. Her deceased husband appears in Nora's dream, soothing and comforting. He listens while Nora explains how difficult it was to bring up their son alone.

Nora comes across as a fragile woman who desperately tries to find peace with herself through having men around who can protect her. But the narrative takes us back to meet her first husband, a man living only for his poetry while neglecting and abusing Nora, something which comes to an abrupt end with his death. He was shot through the heart. But who pulled the trigger?

The story cuts over to Nora's second husband, Ismail (Mathieu Amalric), a manic depressive violin player. Two nurses knock on his door and by force remove him to a mental institution. Someone has denounced him as a nuisance because he likes to go out dressed in a king's robe. Ismail is the comedian in Kings and Queen. He raids the hospital's pharmacy together with his drug addicted lawyer who is trying to save him from the bailiffs and a massive debt. He makes the nurses and a suicidal female patient fall in love with him, and he refuses to be 'cured' by the self-composed psychiatrist, brilliantly played by Catherine Deneuve, who according to Ismail has no soul.

Despite being funny, Ismail is a chauvinist. In his view, men live to die and therefore have a purpose in life, whereas women live for nothing. Yet Ismail's wellbeing depends on the women around him. It is they who lock him up, break up with him or try to sort his problems out.

Kings and Queen is mapped out as a duality between men and women, love and hate, children and adults, happiness and sorrow. It succeeds in being interesting, funny and tragic all at the same time because it is full of surprises.

Nora first seems like an epitome of egoism. Her rich, soon to be husband treats her like a queen, and nothing must get in the way of her future with him, not even her son who she wants Ismail to adopt, or her dying father. Nora's determination to put her own happiness before everybody else is startling, but we are even more astonished when the story takes a turn and we must feel sympathetic towards her. She reads a passage from her father's unpublished book in which he explains that he wishes she would die instead of him. In most scenes it seems the male characters dominate the female ones, but suddenly the roles have been reversed and we don't know who will win the struggle for power, if anyone.

Although all the main characters in Kings and Queen hinge on the verge of complete mental breakdown, and Nora's life is depicted as a convulsion of deaths and illnesses, the plot unravels subtly. Desplechin's slow takes carry the storyline with ease, and Devos's skilful characterisation of Nora is gripping.