Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen" has everything you could want in a French art movie:
Interesting characters who reveal multiple facets of themselves as the story twists along.
All kinds of references to classic myth, cinema and literature, much of it obscurely connected.
Bold tonal and stylistic swings, from the most harrowing psychological tragedy to wacky farce.
Catherine Deneuve at her haughty best.
Those tonal swings are a little too bold, and perhaps the characters, for all their flaws and behavioral surprises, just don't turn into people whose fates matter. But an intelligent story is being told here in a very artful manner. That's quite a worthy accomplishment, though Desplechin got too carried away with his flights of angsty fancy to really invest us in his characters' lives.
They are eventful lives, though, no question. Sometime-narrator Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) at first comes off as a likably upfront, if slightly self-satisfied Parisian gallery owner. But the impending death of her author father, Jennsens (Maurice Garrel), not only throws her comfortable life into a tizzy but also opens the floodgates to shocking flashbacks and ghostly visitations from failed relationships. Not to mention a parental betrayal so horrible we can't help but think it must be, to some extent, deserved.
Nora grows desperate to get an official father on the books for her loved but neglected 10-year-old son, Elias (Valentin Lelong). Though not the boy's father, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), her divorced second husband, was the only lover who ever got along with Elias. Trouble is, the neurotic viola player can't officially adopt the kid, as he's being held against his will in the kind of mental-health facility that permits drinking, sex between patients and staff, and raids with your tax lawyer on the hospital pharmacy. Deneuve, who is only in a handful of scenes, seems to be the head psychiatrist.
Running along two narrative tracks, with some bothersome jumps back in time, Nora's story grows more tragic as Ismael's moves from absurdity to arbitrariness to occasional, outright implausibility. Side characters, some better drawn than others, for the most part do awful things to the highly tarnished protagonists.
The best scenes involve how Nora and Ismael respond to these intimate and professional betrayals. The circumstances may not always be persuasive, but Devos and Amalric's reactive emotions usually are. They're what draw us, if anything, into the intellectual fun house/hothouse that "Kings and Queen" turns out to be.
"Kings and Queen" is not rated but would probably receive an R for nudity, language and violence. Running time: 150 minutes.
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