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A region 2 DVD review of KINGS AND QUEEN / ROIS ET REINE by Slarek
 

A few years ago I was involved in arranging a cinema screening of Arnaud Desplechin's Ma Vie Sexuelle for a sizeable audience with a fondness for European cinema. For those who haven't seen it, it's a long film – it's actually two minutes short of three hours – and consists mostly of talk, about philosophy, about friendship, about men and women, and about moving apartments, something that was starting to figure in a lot of French cinema of the time. Spooling the film up for the screening we were, because of its length, forced to divide it into two uneven halves, with a break two-thirds of the way in to change reels, giving the audience a chance to stretch their legs and grab a drink from the bar next door. In an interesting barometer of reaction, something like thirty percent of that audience did not return from the break. Many of the others were huffing and raising their eyebrows. Just recently, following the film's UK DVD release, I read one review that described it as a modern French classic, a reaction I and most of that audience would have trouble even comprehending let alone agreeing with. The film offered its share of very real pleasures, but in some ways was the essence of post My Dinner With Andre armchair intellectualism, where much is discussed but little is actually done, and if the conversation is conducted in French (or English with a New York twang) then all the better. A very different but interesting reaction on the IMDB carried the headline "French cinema in decline." Hmmm.

I thus approached Desplechin's latest film, Kings and Queen [Rois et reine], with just a hint of apprehension but nonetheless some optimism, certainly more than my friend who, on seeing the DVD cover and realising who the director was, groaned "Oh God." Yep, he was at that screening. "How long is it?" he then asked. "146 minutes," I told him. "Oh God," he repeated. "Who's in it?" "Mathieu Amalric." "Oh God." A very clear pattern was emerging.

But wait up, the movie begins and I'm instantly intrigued, as we are introduced to art gallery director Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) and her almost idyllically happy life and just know that in a film lasting two and a half hours that this is a prelude to darker times. It happens with disarming swiftness, as the father she dotes on tells her that he has found blood in his stools. It's a symptom of an ulcer Nora assures him, but a few minutes later an exploratory operation has been performed and Nora is being told of the cancer that is eating away at her father and that he has only a few days to live. The point of view here is crucial, as the short but devastating illness that follows is shown not in how it physically destroys its victim, but how it emotionally affects his daughter. Prefaced as 'Nora's story', this chapter title is, in this respect, as good as its word. As the illness takes hold, more details of Nora's past are revealed, of her young son Elias and the man who fathered him, who we know died before the child was born, but not how. This one Desplechin saves for later and with good reason, as the circumstances have considerable bearing on Nora's past and present emotional state, as well as her relationship with her father, which is not what it seems either to us or to her.

But running alongside Nora's story is that of manic-depressive violinist Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), who we first meet as two large men from a local psychiatric hospital knock on his door and, after an entertainingly heated exchange, haul him off to the rubber room. Trapped within its walls and openly hostile to his psychiatrist (Catherine Deneuve), he has to resort to playing dominoes with patients to procure the money he needs to phone his lawyer, who is wildly enthusiastic at his committal and believes that they can use as an argument in court in the case of Ismaël's mounting debts.

We are invited to draw direct parallels between the two tales by virtue of some fabulous transitional editing – the early switch from Ismaël battling with five orderlies who are attempting to strap him down to the conclusion of Nora's father's exploratory operation is so seamless that you need a second viewing to spot where one scene ends and the other begins. It is only through almost throwaway lines that we learn that Ismaël is Nora's ex-lover and that the boy "he took care of" for so long was Nora's son. Eventually, inevitably, the two stories cross over, but both are at their most interesting in isolation, as Nora, the queen of the title, recalls more about her relationship with the men of her past (the kings), her back-story increasing in complexity as the film progresses and climaxing with a genuinely painful discovery of how she is viewed by one of them.

Overlong and sometimes a little ramshackle it may be, with talk that intermittently threatens to mutate into waffle, but for the most part the length is justified through inventive storytelling and fine performances. Nora's distress and at one point heartrending grief is powerfully conveyed by Emmanuelle Devos, while the aforementioned Mathieu Amalric's beady-eyed twitchiness fires up scenes that could otherwise have fallen flat. Seemingly deliberate in its tonal unevenness, echoed in the eclectic music score and Godardian use of jump-cut editing, it wanders from the dramatic to the tragic to scenes of almost slapstick comedy (usually featuring Ismaël, though in one riotous scene involving a botched store robbery it's his father who steals the show). But for the most part there is eventual purpose to these stylistic shifts, with the almost sickly sweetness of Nora's daydream of her dead ex-lover's return nicely undercut later by the brutal truth and consequences of his death.

Given Desplechin's approach, it comes as no surprise that not everything works, but when it does it's something to see. There is real pleasure to be gained just from the rich layering and the intricate way the stories and back-stories unfold, and Devos' performance is almost worth the price of admission alone.

So, given my opening statements, is it hat-eating time for Slarek? Well, I don't know, but on the basis of how much I enjoyed Kings and Queen, I'd almost be willing to give Ma Vie Sexuelle another go...

sound and vision

2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a very pleasing transfer that reproduces the film's gentle colour palette well as has a nicely 'filmic' quality. Sharpness is largely good, and black levels and contrast appear solid. The picture never leaps from the screen, but was clearly not shot with that intention.

Sound is Dolby 2.0 stereo and does the job well enough – it's clear, there is reasonable separation – and though the score may have benefited sonically from a 5.1 mix, whether it would have suited the tone of film is another matter.

extra features

Interview with Mathieu Amalric & Hyppolite Giradot (19:09) has the two actors (who play Ismaël and his lawyer Maître Marc Mamanne) in conversation about working on the film and with director Desplechin, shot handheld with two cameras, with their words sometimes directed at an unseen and unheard interviewer. Extracts from the film pepper the talk, which is presented in non-anamorphic 16:9. It's somewhat unstructured but interesting and conducted in French with clear, removable English subtitles.

The Interview with Arnaud Desplechin (29:55) is in English, framed 4:3 and more formal in presentation than the previous interview. The very audible hum on the soundtrack that had me leaping to switch of the bass-to-subwoofer redirection, and occasional DV motion glitches and a few audio blips did not detract from what is an enjoyable and informative chat about influences (Bergman, Hitchcock's Notorious, Polanski's Tess amongst others), intentions and his approach to the film, some (though not all) extracts of which are squished up to 16:9. Advice to those who filmed this piece – switch the camera's autofocus off next time.

Biographies & Filmography feature selected filmographies for Mathieu Amalric, Arnaud Desplechin and Emmanuelle Devos. There is a brief biography for Desplechin.

summary

Probably as good an example as I've seen all year of why you should take each film as you find it and not be influenced by what you've seen before from the same film-maker, Kings and Queen is a cleverly constructed, very nicely played and thoroughly engaging work that despite its length hops forward at a brisk pace and hits far more frequently than it misses.

Artificial Eye's DVD showcases the film well and benefits from an interesting if technically problematic interview with the director, though it does make you pine a little for a commentary track. For the film alone, it comes nonetheless recommended. It would appear that reports of the decline of French cinema were somewhat premature.

Kings and Queen
Rois et reine

France 2004
146 mins
director
Arnaud Desplechin
starring
Emmanuelle Devos
Mathieu Amalric
Catherine Deneuve
Maurice Garrel
Nathalie Boutefeu
Hippolyte Girardot

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
French
subtitles
English
extras
Interview with Mathieu Amalric & Hyppolite Giradot
Interview with Arnaud Desplechin
Filmographies
distributor
Artificial Eye
relese date
14 November 2005
review posted
16 November 2005

See all of Slarek's reviews