Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen (2004) places just inside the top 50 on my “guide” list. That means that enough critics rated it in the year-end Top 10, or even their all-time list, to merit placement over such critical standbys as Pan’s Labyrinth or Russian Ark (it’s only a few notches below the widely beloved City of God). Not bad for a French film that lacks those other works’ narrative or formal gimmicks – Kings and Queen' dual (and eventually merging) narratives don’t quite provide the “hook” one usually associates with such wide acclaim, fairly or not. At first glance, Kings and Queen appears underwhelming, its high praise somewhat mystifying.
Of the twin stories, one is a melodrama (Nora, played by Emmanuelle Devos, is a thirtysomething professional whose first husband died violently and whose father is now suffering from a painful, rapid cancer), the other a comedy - and a rather broad one at that (Ismaël, played by the increasingly ubiquitous Mathieu Amalric, is an eccentric musician seized by doctors at his front door and lugged off to an institution for observation). Desplechin's style is extremely loose, at times bordering on sloppiness, with its jagged jump cuts, handheld camera, and leaping from scene to scene. There are little quirks here and there, like Nora speaking to an unseen "interviewer" off-camera (apparently breaking the fourth wall to inform the audience about herself, misleadingly as it turns out). Or the way Desplechin cuts between Nora's and Ismaël's locations, at moments implying that they are in the same hospital, at other times making out as if they aren't even inhabiting the same film (eventually we discover their relationship, but it's a long time coming). Yet even these stylistic stabs at adventure and experiment are handled loosely, often vanishing from the film for long stretches as if the director disposed of them before they could take. What's more, the whole thing runs a whopping 150 minutes, which initially seems a bit much for such a slight conceit and a largely unimpressive style.
But, surprisingly, the length works in the film's favor, even as it initially drags. As John Huston puts it in Chinatown (playing a slimy patriarch who - like Nora's father - has his secrets), "Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." Such a remark drips with scorn, and when it's observed that the same could be said for certain movies, the mind races towards pretentious Oscar bait and pompous, inert epics of old. Yet this can be a positive observation for films like Kings and Queen. Somehow, by sticking around, they grow in our estimation: we get used to the characters (and perhaps to potentially irritating mannerisms of the filmmaker as well), the work finds enough room to develop and exploit different tones, and ultimately it feels like we've lived through something, instead of reading the Cliff's Notes. Besides, one of Desplechin's supreme purposes is to slowly (albeit occasionally with sudden gestures) undermine what we think we know about these people, their lives, and even how we're supposed to feel about them. Nora, initially stable and serene, eventually reveals substantial cracks in her self-satisfied facade, while Ismaël - whose incarceration at first seems wholly deserved - shows a wily, even sophisticated, operating intelligence amidst his flailings and tirades.
I'm still not sure the film belongs so highly on the list and I don't quite see the virtue of Desplechin's choppy approach (even after knowing what's to come, the first third doesn't quite coalesce). To be fair, as the placement indicates, a number of critics disagree and some were rhapsodic in their acclaim. In his 2004 review on Salon, Andrew O'Hehir raves, "This is a movie you'll carry with you the rest of your life," adding, "when it ended I didn't want to leave. If I could have convinced the projectionist at the press screening to load up the first reel and start over, I'd have sat through it again." What's to account for such a discrepancy? Let it be said that Kings and Queen makes very strong claims upon a certain sensibility. There's the superficially breezy "light" approach, its ironic and subtle plays on the reliability of narrators, its overabundance of explicit references to other works (in this case, mythological), its affection for "low" culture (hip-hop and youth culture, represented by a rebellious suicide at the institute), and finally its juggling of several storylines, from which it weaves a tapestry of parallel arcs and diverse observations. Between all these elements, Kings and Queen displays many of the trademarks usually associated with postmodern literature (even its focus on a milieu of upper middle-class professionals, intellectuals, and artists strikes a chord in this regard).
As such, Kings and Queen tends to eschew conventional conceptions of greatness, even those which the modernist works of Desplechin's national ancestors, the French New Wave, engaged with, albeit in unusual ways. That earlier daring - some would call it hubris - is something many of us may miss in contemporary art cinema (not to speak of contemporary art in general), but Desplechin follows through on his intent with such fidelity and gusto, it's hard not to be sort of impressed, whatever one's initial reaction. Anyway, even if you're one of those whom the film will underwhelm, give it a little time. Particularly once the stories converge (and I have to question Desplechin's desire to keep them apart so long), the movie grows in resonance and its quite surprising climactic revelation is genuinely affecting - feeling less like a "gotcha" trick, and more like a punch in the gut. The effect is increased by the fact that we may sympathize with some of the sentiments expressed, may even be shocked to find that these were not just our uneasy inclinations, but something the author was fully conscious of and subtly exploiting. Yet as we encounter Nora's devastated reaction, it's hard for this confirmation of our own suspicions not to make us all a little guilty in our gloating.
That all sounds a little vague, yet the film is best experienced without knowing what's to come. Which makes Kings and Queen sound like it has a "twist" ending in some trite way. In fact, its revelation is dramatically powerful and emotionally honest (its content is reminiscent of Bergman, a filmmaker Desplechin supposedly adores, right next to Hitchcock - who also revealed crucial information via a letter read in voiceover). This is not the only revelation, in fact the film is filled with psychological unveilings, crucial rephrasings - via flashback - of what was earlier implied, and connections which only emerge slowly, bit by bit before our eyes like a Polaroid. Even writing about the film can make one curious to revisit it, though when I attempted to do this just recently, I still found myself frustrated with the movie's first act. Ultimately, it's not a favorite and I don't think it's quite as great as it was made out to be by the critical community. Yet it sticks with the viewer, tantalizing, provocative, and one finds oneself thinking about it, randomly, later on. I don't see myself asking a projectionist to loop it up again, but then again that's hardly necessarily: even after it's over, the film continues to flicker on the mind's screen for days to come.