Watching Arnaud Desplechin’s “Kings and Queen” is akin to plunging into a sprawling novel whose characters, all linked by blood or bed, become old friends. Switching between the dilemmas of Emmanuelle Devos’ character and the manic antics of Mathieu Amalric’s, this enjoyable French pic welds together drama, melodrama and comedy in a blend with potentially strong European audience appeal, while its free-wheeling storytelling and literary/artistic references should please festivals and fans of helmer’s previous films (“In the Company of Men,” “Esther Khan”). Its commercial Achilles’ heel is a 2½- hour running time, which, for some, may seem even longer.
Nora (the engaging Devos), in film’s first “chapter,” tells the camera she’s 35, the director of an art gallery (where everyone adores her), has a son by her deceased first husband, is divorced from the second and about to marry a rich businessman. Playing with the literary device of point-of-view, Desplechin and co-scripter Roger Bohbot suck viewers into believing that everything the charming Nora says is gospel, only to expose numerous deviations from the truth later.
Meanwhile, a neurotic violinist named Ismael (Amalric) is flipping out in his ratty apartment. Hounded by the tax collectors and a slightly loony sister, he indulges in some harmless eccentricity that lands him in a mental institution. While his drug-addled lawyer (Hippolyte Girardot) schemes to get him released, Ismael locks horns with the clinic’s psychiatrist (Catherine Deneuve) and is held against his will for 10 days of compulsory treatment.
Of the two alternating stories, Nora’s is the more riveting. She is introduced to the strains of “Moon River,” but her tale shifts to high drama when she visits her writer-father (the austere Maurice Garrel) in Grenoble. The elderly man’s stomach pains turn out to be cancer, and the doctors give him one week to live. Nora has to juggle her responsibilities toward her dying pere with those to her introverted 10-year-old son Elias (Valentin Lelong).
At the height of her fragility, she turns to the one man she believes can offer the boy security for the future: Ismael, who is revealed to be none other than her second husband.
Learning this improbable couple was once together radically changes viewers’ perspective of both partners. Further adjustment is required when revelation follows on revelation, particularly regarding Nora’s first husband and the circumstances surrounding his death, and her dying father’s ferocious judgment of her character in a manuscript he knows she’ll read. The story has lots to unveil, as it spins its wheels in some side stories involving Ismael’s family in the provinces and his courtship of Arielle (Magali Woch), a patient at the clinic who keeps slashing her wrists to get attention.
One can pick and choose among various thematic strands, none of which are stressed. There is the idea of taking responsibility for the significant others in one’s life, at which Nora seems to excel. Yet one of the film’s final scenes, when Ismael brilliantly explains to little Elias why he won’t adopt him, offers a window on a type of responsible honesty that Nora, for one, certainly doesn’t possess.
Devos, who carries the film with her crooked smile, skillfully hides her enigmas behind a mask of respectability. Amalric, a loud-talking sprite, backs up his comic business with learned quotes, which give the Ismael character unexpected depth.
Notable in supporting roles are Girardot as his hopped-up lawyer and Woch as his suicidal amour. Elsa Wolliaston is amusingly cast as a revered psychoanalyst, but cameos by Deneuve and director Noemie Lvovsky in the role of Ismael’s selfish sister are merely perfunctory.
High quality tech work creates a modern look, complete with false flashbacks, dreams and ghostly hallucinations. Editor Laurence Briaud weaves together the multiple story threads at just the right pace.