Sometimes the hardest thing in life is to recognize that a relationship has run its course — or more difficult still, that the match may not have been healthy in the first place. In her fourth film as director, French actress-turned-helmer Maiwenn is concerned first and foremost with her characters, who rank among the most vividly realized of any to have graced the screen in recent memory, but behind that is the pain and heartache of fighting for a love that’s ultimately damaging to both parties. Despite a well-deserved track record in Cannes (where her previous feature, “Polisse,” won the Jury Prize), Maiwenn remains under-appreciated by the critical community, but that will change after the world experiences “Mon roi,” a movie that may sound anti-romantic, but is just the opposite: boldly ultra-romantic, of the sort that has turned French pics (like “Jules and Jim” or “A Man and a Woman”) into worldwide hits before.
“Pain serves no purpose,” a physical therapist tells Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) during recovery from the skiing accident that opens the film — only, it wasn’t an accident, but some sort of suicide attempt, or at the very least, a cry for help. For more than 10 years, Tony has suffered in her love for Georgio (Vincent Cassel), trying to change him, to tame a man who’s very wildness attracted her in the first place, or else, to suppress her own emotional needs and deal with the reality of his personality. And now, reflecting back on moments from that decade-long relationship while confined to a physical therapy center that critically doubles at providing psychological therapy as well, where she can connect and laugh with other damaged beings, she learns to accept that pain needn’t be a part of true love.
No doubt, that description sounds rather reductive, maybe even nauseating to some, as if the many emotional insights Maiwenn, co-writer Etienne Comar (“Of Gods and Men”) and her entire cast of collaborators bring to this remarkable portrait of a self-destructive couple could be so glibly contained in a mere aphorism. What makes “Mon roi” so special is not its salutary lesson, but the way all involved bring it to life, creating an exceptionally robust, detail-driven relationship through which we can vicariously experience the ups and downs, the joys and suffering, the sexual ecstasy and crushing emotional betrayals of the radiant woman whom it very nearly destroys.
More impressive still is the way that Maiwenn has synthesized the advances of so many other cutting-edge filmmakers into a style that feels truly her own. As in “Polisse,” she works from a detailed outline, but relies upon her actors to improvise their parts. Whereas that approach can result in either banality (the fumbling ineloquence of mumblecore movies) or over-compensation (the competitive scene-stealing found in Judd Apatow comedies), here, it brings a sense of unmannered realism to the performances. The scenes between Bercot and Cassel feel intimate: The characters are allowed to be spontaneous, unguarded and naked — often literally so, as if no cameras were watching.
Bercot is heartbreaking, and Cassel has never been better, while the supporting cast — especially Louis Garrel as Tony’s brother Solal — raises the game of the two lead actors, for it is Solal who most clearly detects the negative effect Georgio has on her. Reflected in the sincerity of his concern for her happiness, we understand that the couple is not a good fit long before the evidence reveals itself to Tony. Given the rehab-center framing device, we know where things are heading from the beginning, and yet, so many of the early flashbacks mask the trouble that lies ahead.
How many thousand times have audiences witnessed a couple falling in love on screen? It’s a wonder that directors manage to make the process feel fresh (granted, many of them don’t, falling back on old tropes to indicate as much), and yet, Bercot and Cassel convince. From the moment Tony sees Georgio on the dance floor, she’s simultaneously drawn to and turned off by him: He’s charming, over-generous and spontaneous, a recovered womanizer (or not) and a potentially addictive personality. By contrast, she’s rational, guarded, insecure (no thanks to her ex-husband), a lawyer who fights for lost causes. No match-making algorithm would pair them, and Solal is right to be skeptical from the moment they meet, and yet, the connection is clear, paradoxical and not necessarily doomed from the start. It’s an ineffable paradox, one that audiences either recognize or reject, later described by the principle, “You leave people for the same reason that attracted you in the first place.”
Though her method encourages improvisation, Maiwenn has adopted a strategy very much in vogue with mainstream French cinema, wherein conflicts and character are revealed through seemingly ordinary circumstances, rather than head-on in capital-D dramatic scenes. Consider the moment when Georgio reveals that he wants to be a father, furiously ironing in the middle of the night, or the surprising new facets of character that emerge when Tony’s water breaks a bit later in film. Maiwenn skips the delivery scene entirely. No need for Bercot to overact there, skipping straight to the joy they feel at seeing their child’s face — the child who will ultimately find himself caught at the center of the maelstrom.
Naturally, it’s most thrilling to share the moments early in the couple’s relationship, when their love for each other is so intense it may leave you desperate to find such an intense passion for yourself. When things turn difficult, the film becomes harder to watch and by extension, less enjoyable — but then, that’s obviously the point. “Mon roi” runs well over two hours, and though it may seem to linger unnecessarily on certain scenes, rest assured, it has all been carefully calibrated to achieve the vicarious effect Maiwenn seeks. Likewise, although the film privileges Tony’s perspective, that’s not to say Georgio’s behavior alone is responsible for the fraying of their bond (though his decision to rent a second apartment would be a deal breaker for most).
Here, in “Mon roi’s” style, we sense the casual apotheosis of what John Cassavetes innovated half a century ago: a collaborative, generous approach that welcomes the artistic contributions of all, including the crew. Shooting in virtually the widest aspect ratio possible, d.p. Claire Mathon (“Stranger by the Lake”) conveys the color, energy and dynamism of every frame, rendering the melodrama cinematic and the emotions immersive.
Critics can be especially harsh toward directors who get their start as actors (actresses have it still worse), dismissing them as dilettantes or dabblers, deriding the way they often indulge their casts while bumbling cinematic technique, and frequently turning personal when said stars dare to appear in their own films (a knock Maiwenn avoids here by remaining exclusively behind the camera). What the haters ignore is not only the naturally empathetic place from which actors hail — after all, they identify with characters in a way no one else does — but the fact that they are exposed to so many directorial styles en route to taking up the job themselves. Whereas other helmers work in more of a creative vacuum, actors synthesize and apply what they’ve seen work for others. The reaction to “Mon roi” at Cannes has been mixed, and it will continue to divide down the road, but between this and “Polisse,” it’s clear that Maiwenn has something to say — and a clear, strong style with which to express it.