Nothing Succeeds Like Excess
The French expression mal dans sa peau (translation: uncomfortable in his skin) seems expressly made for director Arnaud Desplechin, and it could just as easily apply to his strange and brilliant films. This gawky 44-year-old auteur makes movies that chafe restlessly against categorization. Desplechin's 1992 debut feature La Sentinelle begins as a moody spy drama only to decompose into a ghoulish Gray's Anatomy riff. Likewise, the ensemble comedy My Sex Life...or How I Got into an Argument (1996) initially promises to be a talky bedroom romp, but plummets unexpectedly into murky psychological depths. Even Desplechin's little-seen Playing "In the Company of Men" (2003) is seldom what it appears to be--a meta-adaptation of the titular Edward Bond play that endlessly reinvents itself using improv, rock, and scenes from Hamlet.
The new Kings and Queen has been described by critics as Desplechin's most accessible work. At the very least, it boasts the director's most summarizable plot: Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), a single mother, tries to convince her schizophrenic ex-husband Ismael (Mathieu Amalrie) to assume joint custody of her son. But Kings and Queen quickly sheds its domestic drama epidermis in favor of a host of other genre masks. When I ask Desplechin how he conceived his sprawling story, the phrase he repeats is too far--as in, "I wanted to take the movie too far into melodrama, or too far into comedy. I wanted to go faster and keep adding more things." His reasoning sounds too populist to be true: "If a movie doesn't push you, it's not entertaining. Writing a good comedy or drama means pushing the limits a little bit farther."
The joy of excess tumbles out of every frame in Kings and Queen, right down to the casting of Catherine Deneuve in a dowdy bit part. But is Desplechin's "too far" mantra more than just a showy aesthetic? Is there method in his (and his characters') madness? Desplechin pauses ominously before launching into a torrential defense. "If you take the character of Ismael, who is really all over the place, you realize that he has no value scale. Everything is equal to him. It's quite moral to live like that, to admit that life is a mess. And I think movies that show life to be a mess are moral movies."
However one rationalizes it, watching Kings and Queen will seem for most viewers like being locked in a room with a neurotic stranger: You're never sure what will happen next, and the feeling is more discomfiting than it is "entertaining." In fact, the movie's obstinate inscrutability can be downright alienating. Desplechin uses the word mysterious. "The only way to respect someone is to understand how much you can't identify with that person," he explains. "People see commercials of starving people and they say how much they can identify with their suffering. I think that's obscene. It's important to realize what you don't know about someone."
Respectful detachment is the lingua franca of Kings and Queen. When Nora greets her son at school, she maintains a sizeable physical distance, the better to converse in unintrusive tones. Later, when Nora confronts the death of her father, she hunches over and gesticulates maniacally, perhaps to prevent people from consoling her. Sometimes detachment festers into unmotivated hostility. A letter discovered at the end of the film unearths whole new levels of antipathy among the protagonists, but also reveals nothing at all, so random is the emotional assault.
Of all things, Desplechin compares his work to Seinfeld, the sitcom famous for being about nothing. "Seinfeld is set in this very small world in New York, with just these four characters," he says. "It's almost like its own universe. I think that's what allows the writing to be so smart and so fast." Kings and Queen shares the sitcom's taste for whiplash narrative shifts and even imitates its central gender imbalance--one nutty woman holding court over a group of nuttier men. And like Seinfeld, Kings and Queen allows viewers to project what they will. As the ever magnanimous Desplechin puts it, "You can't stop a film from meaning things."
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