The sufficiently entertaining, occasionally thoughtful, ultimately draining French drama Kings and Queen takes its title in part from the fact that its two central characters -- Nora and Ismaí«l, ex-lovers who have gone their very separate ways -- find themselves surrounded by the classics, which provide a few metaphors for their own circumstances. Nora's father, who's dying of cancer, teaches Greek history and literature, and Ismaí«l has an Ozymandian sense of himself as a figure in the frantic drama of his own brilliantly talented musician's life.
Director Arnaud Desplechin, who also co-wrote Kings and Queen, employs this classical predilection in unobtrusive ways, although his film is essentially a soap opera -- that is, a story in which virtually nothing "happens" except the unfolding of a contrived and tangled plot through lengthy conversations and the occasional spurt of action.
For a while Desplechin keeps his film tightly confined to the stuff of life: birth, death, love, family and the search for the meaning of one's finite existence. This is satisfying for as long as he can sustain it, which isn't long enough, given the film's running time (two hours and 30 minutes). His movie becomes rather too contrived, cluttered and weepy, despite very good performances, especially from Mathieu Amalric as the hyperactive Ismaí«l.
The story begins with a formal introduction to Nora -- so formal, in fact, that Desplechin sometimes allows her to address the camera with psychological tidbits about herself (she may be talking to a psychiatrist or a friend, but that's never made clear).
Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) is 35, the manager of an art gallery, and a single mother, widowed before the birth of her 10-year-old son, and with no time back then to marry the very sweet man who gave her this very sweet child. On a visit to her aging father -- a formidable professor/author whom she secretly fears -- she takes him to the doctor to look into some symptoms and learns that he has cancer and perhaps a week to live.
Meanwhile, the high-strung violist Ismaí«l sits alone in his apartment, where a noose hangs from the ceiling above a stool. When two men in white suits arrive to politely ask him why he hasn't responded to their registered letters, he explains that the noose merely reminds him that he can kill himself if he so desires (he read something like that in Cicero). But that doesn't convince his visitors. So he's committed to a mental hospital on third-party orders from his estranged sister, a whiny struggling artist whom good-brother Ismaí«l unflaggingly supports once every five or six years -- even though she really wants to be a mother. (How's that for a twist?)
From this setup unfolds a big gooey complicated slice of life as we live it (or at least, as these self-absorbed bourgeois intellectuals do). Nora's sister, an angry prodigal waif, arrives home too late to watch her father die. Ismaí«l, in the hospital, argues with his lady shrink (Catherine Deneuve), for whom he claims to have no respect, about the difference between soulful men ("we live to die") and pointless, soulless women (who "just live"). "My soul aches but you can't help me," he tells her, and that seems to be true of every character in Kings and Queen. Turns out Ismaí«l is all bark: His private shrink is a matronly black woman on whom he's thoroughly dependent for validation.
You may have to be of a certain mind -- or at least, in a certain state of mind -- to find Desplechin's film as profound as he seems to want you to find it. On the other hand, this could be a satire, and I'm just not getting it. Kings and Queen is slightly trapped in a cinematic limbo: Not disquieting or original, like the recent Look at Me, and certainly not frivolous like a thousand other movies that try too desperately to be about something. But what can you finally hold on to in a movie that concludes: "Being a bit wrong is good news. It means life will be exciting and full of more surprises than you thought." The best I could do at that point was tell myself that he's joking.
Desplechin uses technique frequently but never intrusively: His jump cuts and dissolves convey the characters' states of mind and give the film visual variety without signaling any particular pretense.
Still, Kings and Queen is finally way too much, especially in its flashbacks, which offer up essential elements of the story with the kind of quick narrative twists and surprises that aren't very dramatically organic or satisfying.
I think Kings and Queen wants to be Rashomon-like, altering our perceptions of the characters as we learn more about them. But Desplechin doesn't have the dexterity to make it work, and really, how surprised can we be once we realize that we're dealing with unreliable narrators? He opens and closes his film to a delicate strain of "Moon River," a song from Breakfast at Tiffany's, one of the most satisfyingly soppy movie soap operas ever filmed (is there anything sadder than a soaking wet cat left out in the rain?). About 45 fewer minutes of copious melodrama, and about 30 more of stark intimacy, would have made a much stronger film. In French, with subtitles.