Freedom Film 

Though it doesn't have explosions or a dude dressed like a bat, 'Kings and Queen' wins with good writing

Last week, Walter Jones, the Republican congressman from North Carolina who became a hero when he stood up to terror by demanding that french fries be renamed "freedom fries," finally admitted that we went to war "with no justification." I mention this not only because it's unusual to hear a congressperson admit a mistake, nor because it's so strange to hear someone in the government say something that's actually true, but rather to point out that our long hate-affair with the French is finally over, and you can now go back to enjoying French wine, French-maid uniforms, French movies and, of course, frenching.

It's the penultimate item which is most pertinent to my job here as film reviewer, and so, with Rep. Jones's blessing, I'd like to bestow a largely positive review upon Rois et Reine, which is reaching our blessed American shores under the literally translated title of Kings and Queen.

These days, there are two types of French movies: the plotless and the gruesome. Luckily, Kings and Queen is the former: a rich character study that isn't dependent on a simple, linear narrative. Instead, it's a sprawling, soap-opera-ish tale that has the feel of a 19th-century novel, with dozens of characters but a basic focus on two central figures.

The first of these is Nora, an art dealer and single mother whose father is dying of cancer. Nora is played by Emmanuelle Devos, perhaps best known for her killer performance in Read My Lips. As she was supposed to be visually unappealing in that film, and yet beautiful in this one, she is perhaps the quintessence of what the French call jolie-laide.

Nora is defined by her relationships to her father, son and three husbands. Nora's first husband died before they were married. Yes. Before they were married. Her second husband is the other main figure in Rois et Reine: Ismaël Vuillard, noted violist and crazy-person. Vuillard is played by Mathieu Amalric, who won a Cesar award for the role. The Cesar is sort of the French equivalent of the Oscar, if the Oscar were given for "acting" instead of "emoting the hell out of a politically correct role."

Ismaël is that rare musician who is so arty that even the French government decides he must be nuts. Thus, he gets locked up in an insane asylum while his drug-addled lawyer tries to find (a) a way to get him out and (b) some drugs.

As Ismaël journeys through the erotic world of the mad, Nora's life is explored through a series of flashbacks, expository dreams and voiceover narratives that reveal, little by little, the mysteries surrounding her complex and event-laden life. And the mysteries are pretty intense: By the end, she's able to claim, with some degree of truth, that she's loved four men and killed two.

While Nora's story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, Ismaël lives in the now, where his life swings from the swinging to the dangerous. When he's not loving a lovely madwoman, he's engaged in a shoot-out in his father's store, or he's stealing drugs while dressed as a milkmaid. OK, not a milkmaid, but some kind of person who wears a white smock.

The different sequences are so eclectic that it's like watching five different genres spliced together into one cohesive film. There are soap-opera scenes complete with orchestral swells, a gun battle, a surrealist dream sequence, hyperrealist melodrama and just a dash of hot monkey love.

Director Arnaud Desplechin really deserves credit for the imaginative use of filmic references and techniques. The cinematography, mostly in close-up and two-shot, is all information and detail, and the music ranges from self-conscious cliché (sudden horn blasts at the moment of dramatic revelation) to disturbing disconnect (breezy jazz during a horrifying conflict) to a perfectly organic connection to the story.

Desplechin also loads the film with so many sub-plots and unexpected turns that I was sucked in for its entire 2 1/2-hour run time. It's kind of amazing that he could make a film that engages for that long without ever showing a building blowing up or a man putting on a costume that makes him look like a bat. Somehow, though, he pulls it off, perhaps using that ancient French technique called "good writing."

Ultimately, Rois et Reine is a very non-American film. There are no heroes or villains, no central conflict that's neatly resolved, and no one in it kills a predatory space alien and then goes on to be governor of California and/or Minnesota. Still, I think Desplechin has made a movie that will appeal to American audiences because, unlike so many of his colleagues in France, he's still concerned with being entertaining. He succeeds at that, and does so without giving up the French proclivity for thoughtfully working through an idea. Now if only Walter Jones and company had adopted that last trait, we wouldn't have to rename our food products every few years.

Kings And Queen
Rated NR

More by James DiGiovanna


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