When Nora Cotterelle (Emmanuelle Devos) first glides into view in Arnaud Desplechin's sprawling and exuberant "Kings and Queen," you almost feel as though she's wafted in on the strains of "Moon River," floating in the Parisian spring air like some flowery perfume. In fact, she's just stepped out of a taxi, and paused in front of the art gallery she runs to fill us in on the significant events in her life so far. The 35-year-old mother of a 10-year old boy, Elias (Valentin Lelong), Nora has been married twice, widowed and divorced once each, and is now newly engaged to Jean-Jacques (Olivier Rabourdin), a man she believes truly loves her because, as she says, he strives to satisfy her every desire.
Nora is such a poised and elegant specimen of Parisian womanhood, and so vulnerable, that at first you want to swat away increasingly clear evidence of her narcissism like a fly. The stories she tells about herself, the way she shapes her life's defining tragedies into a linear narrative and the shy and brave way she presents it all to the camera doesn't invite judgment at first so much as they inspire self-reflection. Observing her in full self-mythologizing mode (she identifies with Leda of Greek mythology, seduced by Zeus posing as a swan) is a little like pausing in front of a store window and catching an unflattering reflection of yourself. Surely (because you are not exactly as you present yourself, either) she can't be this gracious, this long-suffering, this exquisitely Bergmanesque and doggedly hopeful.
Of course, she can't.
A complex, boldly experimental movie plotted like a thriller and paced like a farce, "Kings and Queen" is category-defying film that's as smart and emotionally resonant as it is entertaining. At 2 hours and 30 minutes, full of scenes that feel like they belong in at least two films, "Kings and Queen" burrows into your psyche and stays there for days. Desplechin is obsessed with psychoanalysis (he also gamely makes fun of his obsession in the film), and after a while the film takes on the characteristics of a universal dream. Watching the characters struggle to understand the forces that shaped them, you find yourself doing the same.
In many ways, "Kings and Queen" is a visceral mystery, a whodunit in search of the emotional truth. And Desplechin — who in previous films such as "Esther Kahn" and "My Sex Life" also borrowed from familiar genres to slip his singular vision into something a little more comfortable — would much sooner let us come to our own conclusions about his characters than crack the authorial whip.
After Nora's story is under way, the director swaps Henry Mancini for an avant-garde score, and trades the honey-coated realism of Nora's version of her story for the darkly absurdist worldview of her second husband, Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric). A puckish violinist who plays in a string quartet and sees himself as a Kafkaesque character in a world of bureaucratic wolves, Ismaël sits in his darkened apartment, simultaneously eating a burger, smoking a cigarette, listening to French hip-hop and contemplating a noose he keeps at the ready for — mostly — philosophical reasons. (His answering machine is fixed to hurl prerecorded abuse at the tax agents who are trying to track him down.) He is visited by a pair of farcical orderlies, who inform him that he is being committed to a psychiatric hospital. There he tries, unsuccessfully, to defend his sanity to a cool hospital director played by Catherine Deneuve.
By then it's clear that "Kings and Queen" is not going to turn out to be the well-ordered bourgeois romance hinted at in the opening scenes. And it's a testament to Desplechin's insight that the less unified the movie's tone, the more it resembles real life. Nora and Ismaël's stories seem unconnected at first until Nora travels to Grenoble to visit her father, Louis (Maurice Garrel), a professor and author, and discovers that he's terminally ill. Desperate to find someone to care for Elias while she tends to her father in his last days, Nora frantically searches for Ismaël. Ismaël, meanwhile, is trying to free himself from the hospital, where he's drawn into a reluctant romance with an anorexic suicidal student named Arielle (Magali Woch).
If Nora ruthlessly bends her life to conform to her idea of what it should be, Ismaël careens through his days getting caught up in bizarre adventures. His eccentricity wins him as many enemies as it does friends — among them, the hilariously drug-addled lawyer who hits on the idea of getting the tax collectors off his back by making his insanity retroactive.
Nora is the type of character who can make a line like, "Sometimes I snort heroin with him on the weekends," sound like a request for a pound of pork loin, so it's easy to accept her version of her story at face value for a little longer than feels comfortable. Ismaël, meanwhile, can't pay his taxes or show up at his parent's house for Christmas, and has spent three afternoons a week for the past eight years poring over his subconscious with the famous psychoanalyst Dr. Devereaux (Elsa Wolliaston). He also break-dances during group therapy. We believe him, basically, when he presents himself as helpless before his eccentricity and existential malaise. We believe he really means it when he blinks earnestly at Deneuve and tells her that men live to die, and that women can't understand this because they have no souls. For all the tears that Nora has shed, however (some of which may have been rehearsed), it becomes obvious she may have given better than she's gotten overall. Is Nora a victim? (All the people in her life have let her down.) Or is she a manipulative, self-made martyr? (All the people in her life have let her down.)
As prone to bursts of enormous generosity as they are to acts of monstrous selfishness, Nora and Ismaël are more alike than is at first obvious. Their efforts to connect with others invariably end in disappointment; still they believe in the possibility of love. Nora's cold father claims to adore her, but she's nervous before paying him a visit.Ismaël's sister Elizabeth (Noémie Lvovsky) reacts with a blast of neurotic fury when he offers her a blank card stuffed with a large check as a belated Christmas present in July, but takes the money anyway. Is it selfish or selfless of Nora to ask Ismaël, whom she dumped, to legally adopt Elias, because the boy considers Ismaël to be his father?
Is it selfish or selfless of Ismaël, who loves Elias like a son, to decline, offering the boy a long list of valid reasons that are sure to linger as simple rejection?
Near the end of the movie, Desplechin — as though, finally weary of our obtuseness — upends our perception of Nora with such force that it colors our view of her retroactively, and we never again see her in the same light. Ismaël too is subjected to a harsh dressing down that leaves him without a job and an instrument. Whether they had it coming or life is just unpredictably cruel is left open to interpretation. But Ismaël, a child who has not allowed himself to grow up, seems liberated. As for Nora, it's either proof of her monstrousness or her plucky, movie-inspired bravery that, after her father is gone and her new husband secured, she sighs contentedly and says, "The cycle of woe was over."
At which point "Moon River" is again free to waft along the boulevard on a sunny afternoon. And she means it too. Ismaël may be bipolar, but she thinks she's Holly Golightly.
'Kings and Queen'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Some nudity and drug useA Wellspring release Director Arnaud Desplechin. Screenplay by Arnaud Desplechin and Roger Bohbot. Director of photography Eric Gautier. Editor Laurence Briaud. Costume designer Nathalie Raoul. Production designer Dan Bevan. Running time: 2 hour, 30 minutes. In French with English subtitles.In selected theatersCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times