Judge Jesse Ataide joins the long line of critics whole declare this offbeat French film one of the best films of 2005.
"I think it's really wonderful to make a radical film who can speak to everyone."—Arnaud Desplechin
Kings and Queen is the perfect example of the ever-increasing chasm in the movie world between what the critics say and what the audience gets to view. Since its arrival in America early in 2005, Kings and Queen has been a critical darling, receiving rave reviews that most Hollywood films would never even dare to dream for. But despite the endless praise for the film, there was no hope of it ever receiving any more than a token release in American theaters.
Why? Because Kings and Queen is an uncommercial movie. A French film clocking in at over two and a half hours, oscillating between slapstick comedy and deep tragedy (rendering genre identification useless)—how would one even try to go about selling this to an American audience, even the tiny faction that prides itself on being film savvy?
Kings and Queen then goes on to be an important representation of the emerging importance of the home video market. Now released on DVD by Wellspring Media, the opportunity has presented itself for Arnaud Desplechin's offbeat epic to find its audience. And everybody should see it, for this time the critics are right on the money—this is without a doubt one of the best films to be released anywhere in 2005.
Facts of the Case
Nora (Emmanuelle Devos, Read My Lips), a beautiful and successful art gallery owner and single mother, goes to visit her young son, who is currently living with his grandfather (Maurice Garrel, Son frëre) in the country. When Nora arrives, tragedy strikes, and she sets out to track down her second husband Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric, Munich), a viola player currently being held in a mental hospital against his will by an indefatigable psychiatrist (Catherine Deneuve, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).
These parallel storylines, which rarely intersect but are undeniably affected by each other, compose the film's action, hurtling the film towards its poignant, unexpected ending.
Director Arnaud Desplechin has been upfront and unapologetic about the many influences on his film, but Kings and Queen remains a unique achievement, showcasing a style that could only be described as Desplechin's own. One could devote thousands of words to identifying and picking apart his influences—the heavy dose of Hitchcock, the presence of classic Bergman, the undeniable streak of Truffaut. The film even begins with the melancholy strains of "Moon River" playing as a chic young woman emerges from the back of a cab, fluttering about and effortlessly charming everybody and everything around her—it all seems like a massive homage to Breakfast at Tiffany's.
But unlike the heavy-handed, jab-and-wink references found in a Quentin Tarantino film, Desplechin knows how to work homages seamlessly into his own style and creative sensibility. Indeed, despite the overwhelming scale of the film, the constant fluctuation of charged emotions, and the sprawling narrative that threatens to fall into shapelessness, Desplechin never seems to falter or loose his grip on the material for an instant. He is the master of this tiny universe.
In interviews, Desplechin has described the film as a kind of fusion between slapstick comedies and "those woman pictures from the 1940s." Never attempting to mix these approaches together, he instead gives each style its own storyline, with Devos grounding the classic melodrama, and Amalric bringing to life the Marx Brothers-inspired slapstick. This ends up being an ingenious artistic decision, for allowing the drastic differences of the material to subtly compliment each other, the contrast adds unexpected richness, complexity and emotional depth to the entire film.
If there was any justice, it would be Devos accepting the Best Actress statuette at the upcoming 77th Academy Awards. The only female actor to place in the top 10 of Village Voices's year-end critics poll (with dozens of critics across the country contributing ballots), Devos gives an awe-inspiring performance, stripping away the Holly Golightly glamour of her character and displaying the unspeakable pain and anguish lurking beneath. It's impossible not to be amazed as Devos glides from buoyancy to the depths of despair in a matter of moments; it's her intensity as an actress that drives the film.
Playing the flipside of her character, Mathieu Amalric plays a lovable eccentric not often seen outside of 1930s comedies (his character would fit in perfectly in a film like Bringing Up Baby). To declare his performance as "scenery chewing" would be an understatement—he devours every scene he's in with gusto (it is only in his single scene with Devos that he is overshadowed). But Desplechin is keenly aware that this over-the-top zaniness serves as a counterweight to the film's tragic side, monitoring it closely so that it never threatens to overwhelm the film as a whole.
But perhaps what is most amazing about Kings and Queen is the utter humanity that radiates from the film. The film seems all the more real because of Desplechin's intentional exaggeration—it pulsates with a sense of tender sympathy and understanding for the human condition. The characters' flaws are filtered through recognition, not judgment; when the story suddenly turns unbelievably ferocious there's the feeling of underlying empathy for the tragedies of life. Kings and Queen first and foremost seems like a celebration of humanity despite all of its flaws, a demonstration of the beauty that can emerge from amidst the chaotic messiness of daily life.
This is all summed up in the film's astounding epilogue. Completely unexpected, it's a beautiful tying together of the two parallel storylines—a demonstration of triumph over the tragedies of life.
Unfortunately, both the image and the audio of this DVD leave a little to be desired. The image isn't as crisp as it should be—it seems blurred, even slightly unfocused at times. Thankfully, this is not necessarily an image-driven film, but a clearer transfer would certainly have been preferable. The audio is also quite average, but doesn't detract from the film experience. Optional English subtitles are included.
Extras include a theatrical trailer and several interviews of variable quality. The most important is an interview with Desplechin conducted by Kent Jones. Desplechin almost seems like a character out of his film as he mixes enthusiasm with thoughtfulness as he discusses not only Kings and Queen but his views of cinema in general. It's kind of a rambling interview, but certainly an interesting one that lays out Desplechin's approach to making and viewing films.
The other interviews are of less importance. An interview with Amalric and Hyppolyte Girardot (who plays Almaric's off-the-wall attorney) is just as bizarre as their characters in the film. The other two interviews, one with Attorney Sylvie Welsh and the other with Dr. Vincent Gaulin, explain what elements of French law and mental health issues are portrayed inaccurately in the film. Even though both individuals are highly complimentary towards the film, it seems rather odd to include extras explaining what is factually incorrect in the film. Filmographies for Desplechin, Devos and Amalric are also included.
When there's a film like this—so fresh, original and teeming with life—that it's almost embarrassing that an artificial, saccharine construction like Amélie is what passes as the representative of French cinema for many moviegoers. This is the kind of film that should immediately jump to mind when thinking of the best European cinema has to offer. This is what cinema in general should aspire to be.
Are you kidding? Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
• Interview with Arnaud Desplechin
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