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?
The answer is that the cracks in Nora run deeper than you would have supposed from those subtle, early infelicities: the odd pause in the action, the momentarily blank response. Pretty soon, to your astonishment, you see her trying to put her one treasure, her son, into the adoptive care of Ismaël, who is still padding around the loony bin in his bathrobe, so she can go unencumbered into her new marriage to a man she frankly does not love. This is far from the worst that Nora has done, or is yet to suffer–but by this point Kings and Queen has drawn you so thoroughly into her emotions that you almost expect her to succeed in her desperate plan, and almost want her to.
As for Ismaël, he has no plans. He will put his lawyer in the clear, rescue a suicidal young woman, heal a rift in his family, resume a challenging musical career and set Nora’s son on the path toward adulthood, all while behaving as if his pants are on fire. Blundering has seldom accomplished such a full and useful agenda.
A woman’s story of guilty memories, sudden death, emotional violence, self-suppression; a man’s story of pranks, pratfalls, sex and double talk. How does Desplechin make them one? On the most superficial and least satisfying level, he glues them together with imagery. Everywhere you look in Kings and Queen you see pictures from art history–reproduced as posters or calendars, framed in Nora’s gallery or her father’s home–all based on classical mythology. Through them, you are to understand that Ismaël is a laboring Hercules, though much smaller in stature, and Nora is a type of Leda, ravished by the terrible god who is her father. This doesn’t get you very far–nor does Desplechin much advance your feeling for the characters by naming one after a defiant Ibsen heroine and the other after Melville’s shipwreck survivor. I write off these frills to Desplechin’s exuberance. His mind is so busy he can’t stop himself from applying ornament to every surface.
Fortunately, though, there is a deeper unity to Kings and Queen, which comes from Desplechin’s understanding of people’s moral possibilities–an understanding that deserves to be called classical. He sees that Nora and Ismaël might be able to free themselves from their circumstances but not from their own natures. Hope therefore lies in their becoming more fully themselves, however frightening or absurd that may be. Ismaël must refuse yet another responsibility, the biggest of his life; Nora must burn something more out of herself, from the core. Then they may arrive at as happy an ending as life’s troubled, ceaseless flow ever allows.
Desplechin describes Kings and Queen differently, of course. As a screenwriter and director, he thinks of how the film plays out in time: “A woman’s destiny in an hour and five minutes. Another hour for the labors of Hercules. And ten minutes to save a child. We charge as fast as possible along all the fairy tales from which our lives are woven.” Humans are fast, all right–blink and we’re gone–but in naming the stuff of our brief lives, Desplechin does too little justice to himself, and to everything he’s miraculously worked into his movie. Far more than most of his contemporaries, he knows we are woven of both story and substance, our old fables perpetually crossed with new blood, breath, spit, bile, song.
Ismaël, who quotes Yeats, might remind him of that. Ismaël would describe Kings and Queen as “the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor,” in less than two and a half hours.
Douglas Adams died four years ago, when his proposed film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was still a rough draft. He’d certainly be pleased now, if the dead can entertain opinions on anything, that the picture has opened successfully, just in time to siphon thinking moviegoers away from the last Star Wars episode.
Of the two main components of Star Wars science fiction–mysticism and hardware, as Elizabeth Pochoda famously remarked–Adams was interested in neither. When he needed to invent a piece of space technology, he characteristically dreamed up the Improbability Drive, which conveys your rocket ship where you want to go by making your existence infinitely improbable. When he felt a note of profundity was called for, he typically demurred, preferring to be matter-of-fact: “Space,” he advised, “is big.” When he really got thinking about that bigness, he decided the most wonderful thing about the universe must be the insularity of the English people, who go about their daily business oblivious to the fact that they’re being blown all around the cosmos.
Adams related the interstellar adventures of one of these English people, the unfortunate Arthur Dent, in his 1978 BBC radio play The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, then in a novel of the same name, then in further novels and an interactive computer game, and ultimately in his unfinished screenplay. Now Karey Kirkpatrick has reworked the script, Garth Jennings (a star of music videos) has directed and The Hitchhiker’s Guide is at last in theaters, where it gives the raspberries to every piety in our God-bothering culture.
Maybe I’m being insular in an American way, but I think we need The Hitchhiker’s Guide more keenly than the English ever have, and more today than in the late 1970s. The Brits don’t have to be told they’re madly, myopically provincial–they’ve laughed about that trait for centuries. Americans of the late Bush era, on the other hand, will benefit enormously from the information in this movie, first because it brings them up to date about Copernicus, second because it explains that humans are only one species on earth and third (this is the advanced material) because it reveals that rational beings on most other planets don’t think about a Supreme Being–though if they do, they assume the Creator must be a sadistic incompetent.
The makers of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, by contrast, are skillful–especially the production designer, Joel Collins, who has realized the principal spaceship in a spirit of 1970s plastic-blob luxe and the principal pursuit craft (belonging to galactic bureaucrats) as the ultimate vehicles for squares. Martin Freeman (of television’s The Office) is appropriately hapless as Arthur; Mos Def is sly and genial as his alien companion, Ford Prefect; Sam Rockwell, in the picture’s big star turn, overacts just enough as the President of the Galaxy, a two-headed yet brainless fellow dressed out of the glitz-rock era; and Zooey Deschanel holds many close-ups very charmingly as Arthur’s love interest, the only other human to have survived planet Earth.