She has the face of a mermaid–a real one, not a Disney blonde. The wide undulant mouth drinks in her world like oxygen; the hazel eyes reflect a bent and wavering light. The hair is wavy, of course, but also dark, weighty, enveloping, so that it looks more drenched than flowing. The luminous skin must be cool to the touch. No one with any sense would call this woman pretty; she’s too beautifully unsettled for that.
He, on the other hand, is almost handsome, in a pinch-faced, unkempt, rodent-eyed, moss-toothed, dithering, vituperative, abandoned kind of way. You wonder that such a trim little man should persist in treating the entire world as a locked door, and himself as a battering ram. You marvel, once you’ve grown accustomed to his base level, that he never looks much worse for the blows. At times he even manages to dress with dash–although then, too, he overdoes things, alarming people by wrapping himself in the red cloak of a Renaissance duelist.
She is Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), the tragic heroine of Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen. He is Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), the film’s comic hero. That two such characters should be able to coexist tells you most of what you need to know about Desplechin’s uncontainable talent. His mind operates in bursts: unpredictable, overlapping flares of realism, fantasy, slapstick, pathos, poetry, suspense, which light up a broader emotional terrain than you’ll find in any ten other movies this month. As with his mélange of genres, so too with his visual style–the way he cuts quickly, jumps through multiple views of a subject, pores over faces with a hand-held camera, changes the lighting in midscene. This abundance, which at times seems no more discriminating than life itself, impresses you at once. How could it not, when the musical score encompasses Anton Webern, Henry Mancini and a crew of French hip-hoppers?
What’s not immediately apparent in all this is that Desplechin’s bursts are orderly. They fall into patterns. With the credible improbability of life itself, they give Nora and Ismaël a shared past and the hint of a conjoined future.
Nora, who narrates her part of the story in an incongruously wispy voiceover, first comes before the camera looking like the capable, responsible one. Beautifully groomed, 35 years old and the manager of a Paris art gallery, she is a woman who is used to having men wait on her–including the roughly handsome, wealthy fellow who is about to become her third husband. At this early stage in the film, only the slightest faults disrupt the surface calm, as Nora takes the train to Grenoble to visit her father (an elderly professor of classics) and her vacationing 10-year-old son (the product of her marriage to a man who died young). When her father suddenly has to go to the hospital, Nora remains controlled (or is able to pull herself quickly back to order), even as she finds herself charged with the care of a dying man.
Ismaël, who turns out to have been Nora’s second husband, is clearly the incapable and irresponsible one. He, too, goes into the hospital at the start of the film–a psychiatric hospital in his case, to which he is committed by an unidentified third party. Given that Ismaël lets his phone ring off the hook, distributes bad checks like confetti, owes hundreds of thousands of francs in back taxes and keeps a footstool positioned under the noose in his living room–not to use, mind you, just to clarify his thoughts by showing himself it’s an option–you may imagine that a little observation is called for, perhaps some adjustment of meds. Granted, Ismaël is a professional musician, the violist in a quartet, and so may indulge in a little aggression against bourgeois norms. (Or maybe not. His parents, who smilingly decline to untie him from his bed, keep him company in the hospital by reciting Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone”–and yet they manage to live as grocers in a provincial town.) But even by artists’ standards, or those of his dope-fiend lawyer, Ismaël is a wreck. How did Nora last six years with him?