Kings and Queen
directed by Arnaud Desplechin

Since his 1984 graduation from the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques, French cinéastes have been hailing Arnaud Desplechin as the most promising filmmaker of his generation. With Kings and Queen (Rois et Reine), he has finally arrived.

Desplechin’s early films suggested a Frenchintellectual caught up in the challenge of ideas rather than aréalisateur engaged by the flow of visual entertainment. His 1996film My Sex Life . . . Or How I Got into an Argument (Comment je mesuis disputé . . . [ma vie sexuelle]) seemed to be gripped more bythe argument than the sex. Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric) is abed-hopping, untenured philosophy professor who talks a great dealwhile putting off his doctoral dissertation. Graduate students inphilosophy may be captivated by the three hours of talk—and somecritics still consider the film Desplechin’s crowning achievement,a compelling expression of his uncompromising intellectual andabsurdist, or existentialist, sense of humor. But My Sex Life demandsmore from its audience than it delivers.

Kings and Queen is adifferent story: it works as a film without compromisingDesplechin’s intellectual standards. A complex tapestry ofinterrupted and intersecting narrative threads, Kings and Queenjuxtaposes melodrama and comedy, lays on literary and mythicalallusions, and challenges convention and conventional wisdom.Although the critics were almost unanimous in their praise—The NewYork Times described Desplechin as “wildly gifted”—they werealso not exactly sure what they had seen, and the film disappearedvery quickly this spring. After watching it once, I was so baffledand intrigued that I went back the next night to watch it again, andI am still not sure that I fully understood what has to be the mostintellectually interesting film I have seen in years.

Most of thepuzzlement arises from our effort to understand the heroine, Nora(Emmanuelle Devos). Toward the end of the film, Nora (think Ibsen’s“A Doll’s House”) looks directly into the camera (thinkShakespearean soliloquy) and says, “I’ve loved four men andkilled two.” That sounds melodramatic, and Desplechin meansNora’s story to be a melodrama. But her statement is also somewhatperplexing. In the movie we have been watching, it is far from clearthat Nora has “killed” anyone. Might this be Nora’sguilt-ridden misjudgment of her own life? Or have we missedsomething, or misjudged Nora’s character ourselves?

It is clearthat Nora hastened the death of her father (Maurice Garrel), who wasin the final throes of agonizing terminal cancer. And she did thisover the objections of the motherly nurse who suggested that heneeded prayer, not an overdose of morphine. All children areambivalent about their parents, and a psychoanalyst might havehypothesized that Nora would eventually feel that her conduct wasmotivated by self-centered impatience, and was thereforepsychologically and morally a killing. Moreover, Nora has more thanthe usual reasons to be ambivalent: she had learned that heronce-doting father had come to despise her. Desplechin creates avisible black void on the screen so that we can imagine the fatherspeaking from the grave. He does not indict her for killing him, butcondemns her character in more odious detail—for pride that hasturned into selfishness and vanity—than King Lear could muster forhis daughters. He pierces his daughter’s soul with a soliloquy ofhatred reminiscent of Kafka’s letter to his father. (Garrel is anextraordinary actor.) One critic described this turn of events asDesplechin pulling the rug out from under his character; moreimportantly, I think, he is pulling the rug out from under our ownmoral and psychological judgments. Desplechin wants to challenge thevery possibility of human certitude on such matters.

Just asNora’s father comes back from the grave, so does her first lover.Waiting alone in the hospital corridor during her father’sexploratory surgery, Nora closes her eyes, her head tilts to theside, her dead lover approaches, and they begin a conversation. Weare inside her dream, and their conversation—though eerilymatter-of-fact—is amiable enough. But in subsequent flashbacks welearn that when she was 20 and pregnant by him they had a terriblerow. He came home late one night, drunk beyond the bounds of goodsense, and she refused to let him in. So he climbed up to thebalcony, crashed in through the window, histrionically pulled a gunfrom a drawer, loaded it, and shot himself fatally in the chest. Herfeeling of guilt is understandable. But is this horrific scene adepiction of what actually happened?

My conviction wasshaken as Desplechin’s hand-held camera followed Nora down thestairs and into the street. She is screaming for help, but thesoundtrack is totally silent, heightening the surreal sense of herdesolation. And then there is yet another flashback, as Nora and herfather discuss what story to tell the authorities about the lover’sdeath. In an interview about the film, Desplechin said that fatherand daughter engage in “moral incest”; this conversation aboutwhat to tell the authorities appears to be the incestual moment. Atfirst Nora tells her father that she did not even know there was agun in the drawer. Later, as her father is about to leave to go tothe authorities, she blurts out that her fingerprints may be on thegun. He replies that he had come earlier to the apartment and wipedoff all the fingerprints so that no one would question their story.When she looks into the camera and says that she killed two of thefour men she loved, maybe Nora is telling us the truth—or at leastspeaking sincerely.

The two other men Nora loved are Elias(Valentin Lelong), the son born of that first ill-fated affair, andIsmaël (Mathieu Amalric), the man who she lived with for seven yearsand who became a father to her son. Although there is obviously moreto her break-up with Ismaël, she describes it in platitudes. Herfather, she says, always told her that “love means not having toask,” while with Ismaël it was always, “If you want something,why don’t you just ask?” And the sex, though apparentlysatisfying, was too complicated for her. Now she is about to marry avery rich man who adores her and makes few sexual demands. And it isnot even clear that Nora loves her ten-year-old son very much. Withthe death of her own father, she is desperate to find a man who willhave a relationship with her son and take responsibility for him. Sheseems to have given up love, with its complicated entanglements, inexchange for comfort, career, and a kind of freedom.

Desplechin hasreinvented Ibsen’s Nora for the 21st century. When the originalNora broke out of her “doll’s house” she left behind emotionalcasualties: her children and her patronizing husband. But Ibsen’sNora never looked us in the eye and acknowledged the collateraldamage of her liberation. Desplechin breaks all of Nora’s bonds oflove, including the empathy we have for her. She has, as the directorsaid, come to exist by herself. It is often said that mostcontemporary films are filled with caricatures and stereotypes, butno character development. Desplechin’s Nora has depths and levelsone usually finds only in a great novel and, what is more, thedirector allows his character to surprise us.

The second half ofthe film is, as Desplechin has said, Commedia dell’arte. When hebegan writing the screenplay with Roger Bohbot they had the idea ofjuxtaposing over-the-top comedy and melodrama. It is much the sameidea that Woody Allen tried in his Melinda and Melinda, made at thesame time. But with Allen it soon becomes impossible to tell thecomedy from the tragedy; it all degenerates into Woody’s shtick.Desplechin’s juxtaposition achieves a much deeper insight intocharacter and the human condition. It is said that Ismaël is analter ego of Desplechin, as was Paul Dedalus in My Sex Life. Aninterviewer from Le Figaro wanted Desplechin to admit this, and toconfess that he had the same kind of neurosis and “taste” forpsychoanalysis as Ismaël. Desplechin politely acknowledged that healways hides behind a character in his movies, who, while he isworking on the script, he gives the obvious code name “JeJe.”When pressed, Desplechin offered a more subtle account of hisapproach to his craft: “In hindsight, I see I have a relationshipwith all forms of translation. I skip from one meaning to another . .. I’m an interpreter.” He is describing what historians oflate-20th-century psychoanalysis call the “hermeneutic turn,”when practitioners gave up on Freud’s theories of causation andetiology but retained his methods of free association andinterpretation.

It is rumored that Desplechin, like Woody Allen,whom he admires, has spent years in analysis. Early on, Allen fell inwith the orthodox Freudians, whereas Desplechin seems to havefollowed the “hermeneutic turn” of postmodern Frenchpsychoanalysis. The postmodern idea is that in psychoanalysis theanalyst and analysand construct and then interpret a text about theanalysand’s life. They concede that with another analyst theanalysand might construct a different text. The interpretations ofsuch variably constructed texts may explain very little about theanalysand’s actual biographical experience. If Freud thought therewas one correct interpretation that presented the truth of thematter, the hermeneutic turn has abandoned the search for thattruth.

In this aestheticization of psychoanalysis,interpretation becomes an end in itself, unchecked by a demand forcorrespondence to lived experience. Desplechin enacts this in anunforgettable sequence in his new film. Ismaël, Nora’s erstwhilelover, is involuntarily confined in a mental hospital over hisviolent objections. We subsequently learn that Ismaël, a violaplayer in a string quartet, has some serious reality issues: he iskiting checks, he is failing to pay his taxes, and he is about to bedumped by the quartet. When all of his other objections topsychiatric confinement fail, Ismaël plays his trump card: he mustkeep his appointment with his psychoanalyst at 4 p.m. that afternoon.He has been in analysis for eight years, three times a week, and hasnever missed a session. The staff scoffs at his ploy and tells himthat his analyst will have to come to the mental institution. But oneof the men in the white coats thinks to ask him who his analyst is.When Ismaël prints the name Devereux on a piece of paper, the staffmembers are immediately converted. They accompany him to theappointment in an ambulance in the hope of seeing the awesomeDevereux. She, as it turns out, is a massive black woman, anarchetype of the earth mother.

Analysand and analyst soonset to work on interpreting a dream. As Ismaël tells his dream, oldblack-and-white newsreels of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation appear onthe screen. Ismaël’s interpretations are impressively andunexpectedly literary. He saw a ladder in the dream that heassociates with a Yeats poem. It might be the ladder that lifts thepoet up rung by rung to creativity, or maybe it is about the agingpoet’s inability to mount the ladder—the writer’s block or theloss of potency that so obsessed the real William Butler Yeats. Inthe dream Ismaël remembers looking up at Queen Elizabeth: perhaps hewants to look up Devereux’s dress. These interpretive forays seemto please analyst and analysand, but of course this performance hasnothing to do with his predicament of being locked up in an insaneasylum or with the real-world issues that led to his confinement. Hissacred session with the deity has little to do with anything otherthan the aesthetic satisfactions of the hermeneutic enterprise. As Ismaëlleaves he makes his next appointment and, although I may haveimagined this, seems to hand his analyst cash as he exits. She knowshim too well to take one of his checks.

For a man who hasspent years in analysis, Desplechin does this scene with wry goodhumor and with sophisticated understanding, not with Woody Allen’sblood-drawing bite (Deconstructing Harry). Ismaël is certainlyimpulsive and irresponsible: the French may think he has a neurosis,but here in America it would probably be labeled as bipolar disorder.Whatever his diagnosis, he finally emerges as a loving and lovablehuman being. One can only hope that he is in fact Desplechin’s“JeJe.” Not everyone would agree with this interpretation, but infilm criticism, as in postmodern psychoanalysis, there is no truth ofthe matter and no rules for overcoming disagreement. It is personalauthority that counts.

Near the end of Kings and Queen Nora tracksdown Ismaël in the psychiatric hospital. She is determined to gethim to legally adopt her son. Her request seems a bit bizarre: sheand Ismaël have long since broken up, he is in a mental hospital,and she is about to be married. Which one of them is mad, one mightask? Nora, as we have come to realize, is not interested in having aclose relationship with her son or anyone else, but she knows the boyloves Ismaël. And she knows, too, that this man has a heart of gold.Ismaël consults Devereux, who—acting as Dr. Phil for this momentof real-world advice—tells Ismaël that under no circumstancesshould he adopt the boy. She gives him no reason, only averdict.

It falls to Ismaël to explain to the child who loves himwhy he is not going to adopt him. The scene is all talk, but it ismarvelous talk. It takes place in a museum of natural history, wherethey wander about while visual elements function as a kind ofbackground music. Along with his explanation, Ismaël gives the boy(and us) some extraordinary advice: we all think we are right abouteverything, but if you realize that you are a little bit wrong, thenlife is far more interesting, and there will always be something moreto learn. Ismaël also explains to Elias with a rare and, I think,stunningly precise psychological understanding that there was a greatlove between Nora and him, that Elias was a small part of that love,but that the love no longer exists. So now he is supposed to be afriend to Elias, but an adult cannot really be a friend to a child,and what child would want an adult as his friend? Ismaël recallsthat it was very important to him as a child to have a friend atschool, but an adult can’t fill that role. And Ismaël always likedto steal from stores with his friend when he was a child, but hecertainly would not want an adult accomplice: it would ruin the fun.All of this might be a rationalization, but Ismaël’s ideas reveala wisdom about life now uncommon on this side of the Atlantic. And itdeals with a very real issue as we, to fulfill our own adult needs,increasingly mix and try to match new families.

In the final scene, set in Nora’s dead father’s home, she marries her bourgeois fiancé. She bears the scar of her father’s cruel words, Elias seems out of place, and we feel that Nora has paid too dearly for her freedom. Is Desplechin’s portrait of this new liberated woman tinged with sadism and a personal agenda? His former leading lady and lover, Marianne Denicourt, certainly thinks so. She believes that Desplechin, in working through the failure of their relationship, has shamelessly stolen the story of her life and distorted her character to justify his own. She has told her side of the story in a book about a self-involved and narcissistic director named Arnold Duplancher. She calls the book Evil Genius. French cinéastes are hoping she is right about the genius part.