To all appearances, life is going pretty well for Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) who has just emerged from a ten year relationship with the disruptive Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) and settled comfortably into a new one with businessman Jean-Jacques (Olivier Rabourdin). Nora, who works in a gallery, has a ten-year-old son from a man she loved as a young woman but who tragically died before the child was born, but the child likes Ismael better than Jean-Jacques. Today she is going to visit her father Louis (Maurice Garrel) who has been looking after her son during the holidays, and has a present of an art print to give him, but he has something to give her: bad news.
Apparently in an effort to throw as much experience at the wall of film to see how much will stick, writer and director Arnaud Desplechin's Rois et Reine, or Kings and Queen in English, did not lack for incident. Sprawling into around two and a half hours it packs as much of its two main characters' lives into that time and still feels as though it could have had room for more. Nora's story intersects with Ismael's but not very often: it's only the bond that the son had with Ismael that really connects them. Yet what might have been in other hands two narratives running side by side, is actually a mishmash.
Everyone in the film has their own life story that we delve into at various moments, some more exploited for the overall plotline than others, and some leaving unanswered questions. Nora's tale is superficially the most serious as Ismael's verges towards comic relief, not that it's especially funny, but the lighthearted music trilling on the soundtrack pushes the tone in that direction. We first meet Ismael as he is being persuaded to leave his apartment by a pair of psychiatric nurses, he protests that there is nothing wrong with him, but the nurses can't help but notice the noose hanging up in his front room.
He wasn't going to use it, Ismael objects, but they take him away to hospital nevertheless as he kicks and lashes out all the while, and continues to do so even as he is tied to his bed. At least this might keep the taxman off his back. Amalric is superb as the reasonable sounding but actually in the middle of a breakdown charmer, a deep thinking viola player who is dragging the world down with him; he makes quite the pair with his druggy lawyer who visits the hospital to stock up on supplies from their storeroom. Meanwhile Nora (Devos outdoes her co-star in range) faces up to her own crisis as Louis finds out he has terminal cancer rather than the ulcer he thought and has but a week to live.
Kings and Queen starts off with Nora detailing her life as if it were all going swimmingly, but takes no time at all to expose this as a sham. Appearances can be deceptive, Desplechin says, and there are two scenes two-thirds of the way through that make us reassess the characters of Nora and Ismael, casting them as arrogant narcissists. It's a jarring twist as all the way through we've been warming to them, understanding their plight and now we see them as certain others do, as less than sympathetic or deserving of pity. Because this comes out of the blue, it doesn't sit as well as perhaps it should and we are left disoriented until the ending where we are meant to decide whether the really were all that bad. As with everyone in the film, the truth of their personalities lies somewhere in the middle ground, but even at this length the story holds your interest, however profound or otherwise you find it. Music by Grégoire Hetzel.