Nora Cotterelle is about to get married to a wealthy man. At first she looks like a sophisticated art-loving Parisian, talking to art dealers like a lady who lunches. Next she is on a train en route to the town where her father lives she visits her father in Bordeaux. Upon her arrival, her father tells her he’s not feeling well. She takes him to hospital and is diagnosed with a terminal disease. The shock unleashes images and emotions from her past, which come back to her like high definition slide projections.
Ismäel Vuillard is an artist who is committed to a psychiatric home where he lives through a series of tragic-comic situations. Nora and Ismäel, we later find out, used to be lovers. That marks the beginning of the merging of the two parallel, kaleidoscopic narratives. What seemed like a jumble of slightly random sequences dovetail into some kind of coherence, although, like life, nothing ever becomes too transparent and clear.
Kings and Queens is an auteurist film that tries out some new ways of depicting memories and the non-linearity of time. For that reason, the parallel narrative technique is a perfect meta-device to explore the idea of life as a collage.
We all know that it’s a Hollywood myth (and one much favoured and perpetuated by mainstream film schools) that every narrative fact should be explained and that there is a natural sequence to things, the old beginning-middle-end template that Anglo-Saxon audiences are so addicted to for the illusion of control it gives them. Kings and Queens is composed of a series of sequences which, even though they are not self-contained, they carry their own magic and essence. Together, they give the film a unique energy and capture a very contemporary sensitivity.
In the reality of the mind, which arguably is the only one, such laws of order and logic stop making sense. Desplechin does away with constricted narrative ideas of time and space and creates a film that is fluid, multiple and always stimulating. The result is a sprawling non-genre experiment that is funny, philosophical, weird and emotional, a 150-minute pleasure ride.
Desplechin is also a director of good visual taste and some of the faux-documentary scenes of quintessential French landscapes imprinted on faded film stock are stunning. He also makes a very successful experiment with editing and sound in one sequence when Nora’s father is being wheeled into hospital on a stretcher.
Catherine Deneuve has a small part as a psychiatrist at the clinic where Ismäel is interned. Emmanuelle Devos is superb as Nora with her plain/beautiful looks and quirky delivery. Whereas a lot of contemporary French cinema seems to lack oxygen at the best of times, Kings and Queens takes it to more adventurous territory and brilliantly succeeds in doing so.