With an abandon that an action film might envy, the tragicomedy Kings and Queen leaves you both exhausted and refreshed by its sheer human vitality and hurtling storytelling. Arnaud Desplechin’s latest is an epic adventure of character that follows ex-lovers Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), an elegant, vaguely childlike gallery owner, and Ismael (Matthieu Amalric), a totally engaging, battily insightful, and probably manic violist. Desplechin plunges us headlong in the first few scenes: Nora visits her sepulchral father on his birthday only to learn he is mortally ill, and Ismael answers his doorbell to find two whitecoats from the mental hospital. That only hints at the narrative and tonal challenges of Desplechin’s film: Ismael’s psychiatric stay, for example, is played for wry, even absurd humor, while Nora, visiting her father, calmly hallucinates a chat with her son’s dead father.
Everything is anchored by the entrancing performances from Devos and especially Amalric. They give us characters whose lives you imagine continuing offscreen, partly because Desplechin’s complex irony (almost in the philosophical sense) humanely preserves mystery. Amalric’s astonishingly immediate performance is reason enough to see this movie — the best portrait yet of a certain kind of neurotic’s preternatural empathy, openness, and on-the-fly brilliance. Devos’s Nora, selectively nervy, projects such delicate warmth that we only gradually realize how reserved she is about her intentions. The supporting cast is superb, especially Ismael’s faithful, Groucho-Marxist lawyer and Nora’s headstrong youngster, a mini-Romantic.
It might seem strange to recommend watching a 150-minute movie twice, but there is so much craft here to appreciate. Desplechin’s rich alchemy unleashes the teetering human comedy with an energy that feels strange and yet so very right.
Opens May 13
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