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Rich and strange, Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen is a
movie of large gestures and outsize performances. This extravagant
family melodrama runs two and a half hours and never lags, so
moment-to-moment enthralling are Desplechin’s narrative gambits and his
reckless eccentricity. Kings and Queen does not lack for
conventional histrionics. As a single mother lumbered by a complicated
past as well as her weathered stick of a father (Maurice Garrel),
Emmanuelle Devos gets to express every emotion; her all-out performance
in the role of Nora does everything but upstage co-star Mathieu
Amalric’s manic turn as her flamboyant ex-husband, Ismaël. As befits a
soap opera, fully half of Kings and Queen takes place in the
hospital. Just as Nora learns that her father is suffering from
advanced cancer, two men in white coats arrive at Ismaël door. Nothing
is straightforward. Narrative is akin to conspiracy—and not just
because Nora turns out to be a not altogether reliable narrator. For
much of the movie, plot is trumped by texture. Desplechin typically
cuts from one chaotic scene to another. Highly original in his
flashbacks and dream sequences, he organizes almost free-associational
mood shifts and uses them to keep things off balance. The unstable
continuity is further fissured by vérité jump cuts, swish pans, and
unmotivated repetitions. Relationships are only gradually revealed;
things are always more complicated than they initially seem. The
narrative takes a few hairpin turns, sometimes on two wheels. Isma is
fond of the word impedimenta—meaning the psychological baggage
that keeps people from functioning as they would wish—but Desplechin
appears to thrive on the structures that impede narrative progress.
Kings and Queen
just picks up the baggage and runs—it’s terrific
filmmaking.

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