How moving is a strummed version of “Moon River”? Like Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane” – also heard in Rois et Reine (Kings and Queen. Arnaud Desplechin, 2004) – it’s a piece that always “works”, brushing up our associations even as the images tell a different story. Every time we hear it, the film’s pace is reset: it’s like the mechanical use of a music-box, which triggers an ongoing sequence, picking up where it left off. With his catalogue of diverse movie themes (from Marky Mark to Randy Newman), Desplechin is able to send us to two places at once: the scene we see, and the specific tone generated by the sound. Music in Desplechin is never “timeless”, but can be pinned down to a definite space, mood and history.
As a title, Kings and Queen is also peculiarly suggestive – if slightly misleading. With its connotations of slow movement and centralized power, the title leads us to expect a more obvious sort of chess-play, but there is actually little overt gamesmanship in this film. Instead, Desplechin sees his leads as figures of immense but restricted power: godly presences on earth, yet limited in terms of expression, and unable to communicate other than through formal gestures. The film has a very subtle overlay of aristocracy: it has a camera which focuses on the upper halves of human beings – as if they’re half-flesh, half-figurehead. It’s in this context that we see our first character: an example of a woman, a modern aristocrat. She walks down a boulevard in spring – complete with a cover of “Moon River” – and this sunny, wide-open beginning is our introduction to the film. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) has an easy relation with the camera: she addresses it with sympathy and tact, and we later see her carefree image in photographs. She can also discuss the desire she inspires – the “mad” love of her father, the passion of her fiancé and her experience with previous lovers – without hesitation or coyness. She makes protestations about her looks and ageing, yet remains implacably serene. In all, she presides as “queen” over a kind of earthly paradise: luxuriating in the bond with her son, and surrounded by loves, memories, and optimism. So when Nora’s father dies, accusing her of monstrous egoism, what trait is he referring to?
It’s possible that the film sees something “unnatural” in this woman with a surfeit of love, who nevertheless says that her son is “everything” (“toute ma vie”) to her. The blissed-out, sun-drenched image shows a woman sated with desire – and perhaps this over-fullness, this weight, has an aspect of smothering. When Nora recreates the young image of her dead husband, Pierre (Joachim Salinger), it’s clear that the love for a boy – a youthful image, suspended in time – is the most fulfilling for her. Between the two of them, a woman and boy have all that’s needed – and Nora’s new husband (Olivier Rabourdin) is kept as a satellite, his attentions accepted from time to time. Given the film’s light treatment of killing – Nora commits two murders – it seems unlikely that her flaw is one of action, but rather a problem of emotion (Nora is a noir name, after all, and for Desplechin genre crimes do not carry real weight.) Nora’s fault, it appears, is a lack of self-consciousness. Throughout the film, we see her enjoyment of being kind, the way she takes her time with people’s affections and her deferral of romantic tributes. Despite her chaotic past, she’s constantly looking for fathers to adopt her son; trying to seal up connections and sanctify relations within the family. More important, Nora is also a stranger to perversity.
Desplechin’s work is, above all, a cinema of irregularity: his films are full of sudden flirtations and cool-offs between characters. Women recognized by his camera as “love interests” turn out to be sisters, or variations on platonic friends. In La Sentinelle (1992), chance comments often give rise to long monologues and torrents of “irrational” anger, which are tolerated and coded as the norm. His films feature vengeful, undying fathers who rage even as their bodies become decimated, seizing upon some small glitch in the child’s personality. Desplechin looks at the way the “unforgivable” becomes the core of character: long-nursed hates and repulsions turn into a mechanism of the mind. En jouant ‘Dans la compagnie des hommes’ (Playing ‘In the Company of Men’, 2003) alternates between scenes of family drama, and shots of the butler’s past as a mariner: an assistant on a submarine ready to blow up the world. This man’s life was ruined by a single gesture (the eating of a piece of bread smeared with blood), and it is this kind of abject, hidden act – the act which can’t be assimilated – that Desplechin’s films turn on. In La Sentinelle, undead histories take the form of a human head found in luggage. It is a huge, inescapable, yet personal motif – as is the appearance of a ghost. Both represent a past that is undigested and now screams for close attention. Kings and Queen has a similar sense of treading on haunted ground: a character’s unconscious violation of deep-rooted principles, which results in a raging abyss of myth. Desplechin contrasts the intensity of these histories with the stark physical remains of life: fathers with long memories, as opposed to the frailty of the prone body.
However, when it comes to crimes of personality, this film has more sympathy with people who act out their madness than imperturbably calm, moral figures such as Nora. For all her charm and influence, Nora does have a feeling of slightness, and she is less imaginatively alive than her ex-husband Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), or even his new love Arielle (Magalie Woch). Desplechin has an empathy with irrational movements and behaviour: he often cuts from an unresolved to a reasonable gesture – for instance, the “imaginary” scowl that Arielle makes while talking about her suicide attempt. It’s the expression of a self-consciously mad person – this character can’t help but play out preconceptions of her. During its jerky editing sequences, the film equates the faces of madness with the appearances of a disordered consciousness. Desplechin has always had an interest in how people express themselves unconventionally; Esther Kahn (2000) approached acting in terms of the neurosis involved in self-production and the faces people make out of perversity. In Kings and Queen, both Ismaël and Arielle suffer from a helpless distortion of their message: the slow brute gesture made by Arielle is a cry for help too bizarre to be understood. Desplechin freeze-frames these moments to show them as part of the collage of a person’s character, rather than its entirety.
While Nora is able to find a sensible place for her impulses – for instance, her concern for her looks during an emergency – several of the characters (Ismaël’s sister and his lawyer) have problems with over-gesticulation and the production of facial expressions. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Desplechin is fascinated by the patterns that build out of the body’s unconscious movements – the way the feet track out a unique rhythm while the mind is engaged elsewhere. These systems appear to be more personal than any other aspect of identity. In Desplechin, people are what they do and feel: they can escape their tags and slip out of their selves as easily as costumes. Arielle is referred to as the “China woman” or “Chinese girl” (“la chinoise”) because of her reputation as a sinophile: an absorption in Chinese culture simply identifies her as “ethnic” – a label not given to the apparently Asian receptionist. With his theme of adopted children, and the casual assumption and forgetting of connections – Ismaël’s grandmother thinks of adoption as an alternative norm rather than a rarity – Desplechin points to the general starkness of race, and its interchangeability. I’m encouraged by the way that ethnicity appears to be a switchable sign for this director, with his deliberate confusion of texts, and the mass of translated quotes in all of his films. Even for very emotional scenes, Desplechin uses music that is highly localized and specific, such as the very British sounds of Paul Weller, or the records of early rap finding its way.
However, there is one category that remains unshakeable for the director: gender. Yet that may be freeing; some critics have been startled by the scene where Ismaël declares that men follow a direct, philosophical line to death, while women have no soul and move from bubble to bubble. However, isn’t this the exact premise of practically every screwball film: the pairing of a paranoid man and a blithe woman, and her attempts to divert his obsessed, linear journey? What are My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936) and Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938) about, if not the lightness of having “no soul”? Part of the comedy of this film is the mystery of Nora’s entitlement as a woman – the way she’s embraced by queens of other realms, being taken up by Mme Vasset (Catherine Deneuve) at first sight. Vasset is used as a signifier of aristocracy, along with the appearance of the asylum (with its classical roots in French drama), the string quartet, and the use of light blue, beige and shell tones (Vasset is framed against the pale gold leather of the institution.) Another instance of bubble-to-bubble movement occurs when doors open and all difficulties are swept aside for the regal African analyst, Dr Devereux (Elsa Wolliaston), whom Ismaël associates in a dream with the Queen of England. Historical figures constantly stand behind and between these individuals, like the Shakespearean quotes which uphold and propel the characters (most obviously in the theme of recriminating fathers, but also in the film’s strange, interior monologues.) Desplechin’s use of Shakespearean markings in several films is an indication of his vision of identity, in which figures of the past come to the fore, and drive others. In Playing ‘In the Company of Men’, one character is explained when it’s realized that he stands for both Iago and Polonius, so that the identification of personality occurs through two streams. In that film, we see a family of men playing out power games, while photographs of the connecting women are shown. The conceit is that all the bridging characteristics in the film belong to the women; what we don’t know about the characters can be summarized as, simply, woman.
From this perspective, it’s difficult not to get the sense that everyone in Desplechin is controlled by satellites. Yet it’s the intersection of myth and real-time which makes his work so distinctive: the tension between history and its creative usage. In Kings and Queen, Ismaël’s coronation dream is viewed through the grainy, “objective” eyes of history – that’s what makes it haunting. However, later we see the dream as performance – when Ismaël gives a Yeats-inspired reading of his own subconscious, which holds up intellectually. In this movie, a mind, a dream, or any kind of text is available for dissection. English and foreign quotes and songs keep floating around, so that we have to ask: where are we in this film? When are we? If we follow the music’s lead – and it’s irresistible not to, even for a few seconds – we could be in the glory days of British pop, or in the hybrid reinventions of new hip-hop. Desplechin’s view is that the translated becomes iconic, just as the adopted becomes “innate.” While a translated text may start off as a substitute for the original, over-repeated readings, the relationship between the words has its own, distinct chemistry. Towards the end, Nora recites a quote from Emily Dickinson, “Water is taught by thirst”, which indicates that the “objective” is always being shaped by desire and transformed into a new, imaginative entity.
These ideas come together in the film’s coda – the word “épilogue” is paired with a massive excavated, sculptural head. It takes place in the archæological section of a museum, with Ismaël giving instructions to Nora’s son, Elias (Valentin Lelong). But these relics don’t have to be digested in one go: the museum is a virtual corridor of whispers, with stepfather and son shaping themselves around catacombs and artefacts, revisiting the adventure of their meeting, and Ismaël urging the boy to move on from his memories. Elias makes his understanding clear in the last scene, when he starts scratching out a new family tree and re-telling the story of his lineage. From the characterization of the grandfather to what’s happening right now, every connection is open to rethinking – and the boy’s description is unending. The suggestion is that no detail of the present is too chaotic to be assimilated: someday the strands will all be absorbed. This particular story will be lived in and naturalized, and in future, the child’s narration will be unquestionable. From the frantic mapping of the past comes the possibility of inheriting new relations and having them set in stone.