A sprawling, subtitled French talkfest, Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen hasn't been the art-house crossover hit that March of the Penguins has been. Rather than climbing up the box-office charts, this movie has instead slowly traveled around the country since its New York opening in May. In fact, it's exactly the kind of film that a phenomenon like Penguins marginalizes: Why suffer through a twisty, unpredictable 150 minutes of subtitles when you can breeze through 80 minutes equipped with a voiceover that tells you exactly what to think?
But Kings and Queen is also exactly the kind of great foreign film we're in danger of losing as indies and docs crowd U.S. art houses. Deliciously ambitious, Desplechin's film is essentially two parallel movies that intersect twice -- once at the midpoint and once at the end. It follows linked dual protagonists almost as interesting to look at as Emperor penguins: Emmanuelle Devos is a stunning beauty, with open features just askew enough to make her interesting. Mathieu Almaric is charismatic and comic, with scrunched features and a mischievous glint, like a cross between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Chico Marx.
In some ways, the parallel stories they inhabit couldn't be more different. Devos' Nora is a remarkably poised woman dealing with myriad problems -- managing her austere father's impending death, being visited by ghosts, juggling husbands past and future, a fatherless son, and a lost-cause sister. Nora's half of the movie is classical melodrama, an update of the '40s' "woman's picture" with echoes of both Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman.
If Nora is a woman who at first seems to have everything together, Almaric's Ismael is a man whose life seems to be falling apart. But rather than melodrama, his story is played as farce: He's committed to an asylum by a sister who may be even crazier than he is but contemplates staying as a means of avoiding back taxes. He raids the hospital medicine closet with his visiting lawyer and romances a suicidal new patient. On the strength of this film alone, Almaric has to be one of the most purely entertaining performers in movies today. His hip-hop day-therapy dance is one of the most joyously goofy moments in recent cinema, easily topping the cherry Jon Heder put on top of Napoleon Dynamite.
The aplomb with which Desplechin weaves these seemingly incompatible strands is remarkable. Here is a film that blends tragedy and comedy, artifice and naturalism. It makes room for dance routines and gunplay, sex and love, death and adoption. A beautiful heroine and a charismatic hero. Chamber music and French hip-hop and "Moon River." That it contains so much and is also packed with allusions -- to other films, poetry, mythology -- might suggest that Kings and Queen is a Tarantino-esque flight of fancy. It isn't. I can't think of another film this year more connected to real life. When its 150 minutes of subtitled talkiness ended, I was ready to watch it all over again.
Kings and Queen
Opening Friday, September 2nd