Kings & Queen(Wellspring, 11.22.2005)
In Jacques Audiard's sublime Read My Lips, Emmanuelle Devos plays a taciturn, near deaf secretary who gradually gains confidence in herself after Vincent Cassell's haggard thief crashes into her life. Arnaud Desplechin (Esther Kahn) takes this character arc and, indeed, the arc of most silver screen heroines and nimbly turns it on its head in his sprawling Kings & Queen.
When we first meet art gallery director Nora (Devos), she seems to have her life in perfect order -- she tells us as much in confessionals to the camera -- but things soon begin to unravel for her when she learns that her father is dying from cancer. This discovery leads her to understand how what she viewed as her prudence has been seen as solipsistic narcissism by the three kings of her past (her father and first two husbands) and how it might come to destroy her son as she embarks upon a third marriage.
Clashing with this story is the burlesque tale of bipolar viola player Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), Nora's second husband and the bug-eyed id to her ego. We're introduced to Ismael as he's being involuntarily confined to a psychiatric hospital, and Nora's and his paths soon cross in surprising ways as they respectively fall in and out of chaos. Desplechin has compared Nora to Gena Rowlands' reflective author in Woody Allen's Another Woman and Ismael is a sort of amalgam of several neurotics from Allen's films, although he's essentially a nicer but loonier version of Sweet and Lowdown's Emmet Ray.
Desplechin and co-scripter Roger Bohbot (The Dreamlife of Angels) create a wonderful aberration of a film that explicitly calls for the viewer to draw parallels between the story and Greek mythology, Ibsen and Shakespeare plays, and Breakfast at Tiffany's. It's also a film in which you can trust your instincts about where the story might go about as much as you should trust Nora's narration or, indeed, her flashbacks. This creates a sublime spontaneity that's assisted by cinematographer Eric Gautier's (The Motorcycle Diaries) frequent use of handheld cameras and jump cuts. There's also a very offbeat soundtrack that crams bouncy jazz, hip hop, and horn blasts between bookends of Henry Mancini's "Moon River."
Devos and Amalric reteam with Desplechin and each other after 1996's My Sex Life...or How I Got Into an Argument and deliver some of the finest acting of the year. She perfectly modulates her character's icy sheen with undercurrents of remorse while he constantly risks absurdity, but ably juggles tragedy with comedy.
This disc features a sumptuous 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Like the 150-minute film, a 29-minute "conversation" between Desplechin and film critic Kent Jones is a bit unruly, but more than worth a spin as Desplechin's stream-of-consciousness answers address his inspirations and provide insights into the film. Unfortunately, a 19-minute interview with Amalric and fellow actor Hippolyte Girardot is basically a clip-fest and not worth your time. In an 8-minute interview, attorney Sylvie Welsh notes how Desplechin got most of the legal issues in the film wrong, while Dr. Vincent Galvin reveals (in a 6-minute interview) that he got most of the medical ones right. -- Colin Miller