“Is there anything more dazzling than the possible?”
Sophisticated, high-spirited, and unpredictable, Arnaud Desplechin might be likened to a raffish, Gallic Woody Allen – the comedic aspects and neurotic energy are certainly rife in My Sex Life (1996) and the new Kings and Queen (2004) – but his vision is less narcissistic, his canvas broader and ultimately more forgiving, even optimistic, about the need for intimacy, the possibility of love and self-renewal, and the heroic qualities of ordinary life. What further sets him apart is the obvious relish he takes in summoning his characters to life, giving each a unique identity that he nurtures with a warmth and sensitivity that is entirely absent from, say, Robert Altman’s arch, ironic portraits of group behavior. He loves each equally, as he likes to say. And that doting attitude – one adopted by a loving parent – is apparent from the way Desplechin’s camera tracks bodies and zooms in on faces, signaling how emotionally invested he is in their universe.
With just six feature films to his credit, the 45-year-old writer-director is already one of the most innovative forces in contemporary French cinema, a raconteur whose expansive, ambitiously humanistic films are routinely championed at major film festivals (he has been nominated three times for the Palme d’Or). Primarily character- and performance-driven epics, Desplechin’s films owe as much to the sprawling novels of great writers such as Tolstoy, Dickens, or Balzac as to obvious cinematic forebears like Jean Renoir and Francois Truffaut. And like those playwrights who provide him with such vivid inspiration (Shakespeare, Ibsen), or the poets and thinkers his characters are so often quoting (Heidegger, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard), Desplechin is an instinctive maximalist, obsessively packing his narratives with a wealth of ideas, storylines, personalities, and volatile emotions.
In his latest feature, Kings and Queen, Desplechin (along with cowriter Roger Bohbot) delivers perhaps his most uninhibited and moving work to date, drawing on sources as disparate as Yeats’s poetry, psychoanalytic dream theory, and Greek myth to tell a story about love, madness, guilt, grief, and the familiar theme of extended (though not necessarily blood-related) families in crisis. Bifurcated into a tragedy and a comedy, Kings simultaneously tracks the disparate lives of two characters: Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), a single mother and art-gallery entrepreneur with a mournful, hidden past, and her former husband, Ismaël (alter ego Mathieu Amalric), a brilliant violist with mounting financial and personal problems who’s just been committed to a state mental hospital.
As the film opens to the sweetly nostalgic strains of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” – a tip of the hat to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a movie at a far remove from this one – Nora is on her way to Grenoble to visit her ten-year-old son Elias (Valentin Lelong) and elderly father Louis (Maurice Garrel), a distinguished author caring for the boy while she works in Paris. Shortly after Nora’s arrival, Louis reveals that he might have a life-threatening tumor, and a visit to the doctor confirms his suspicion of terminal cancer. Left on her own to orchestrate her father’s end-of-life hospital care, Nora contacts a wayward (and apparently drug-addicted) sister with the grim news.
Intercut with her tale of woe, and in stark contrast to these grave events, Ismaël first appears in full-blown manic episode, crouched in his disheveled apartment with loud hip-hop music blaring as two white-coated attendants appear at his door to cart him off to the funny farm. An unidentified “third party” has arranged to have him temporarily committed, and Ismaël – a mess of a man whose erratic behavior (such as appearing in public wearing a frayed musketeer’s robe) has apparently alarmed his friends and colleagues – responds with hilariously impudent, childish indignation. But despite his fragile state and panicky neuroses, Ismaël is an instantly likable and sympathetic presence, bonding with a young suicidal patient (Magalie Woch) and trying to make nice with the burly attendant he battered, even if a loose tongue gives him a mischievous cast.
Ever the psychologist, Desplechin clearly wants to set up a binary opposition between Nora’s cool, regal poise and Ismaël’s fits of mania as a trope for bipolar disorder, and as a structuring principle guiding each of the simultaneous narratives. Nora, we come to understand, has every reason to be melancholy: Love is elusive in her life and linked to tragic misfortune. Pierre, the father of her child, committed suicide, something we learn through multiple flashbacks and one moving dream sequence in which his ghost makes an appearance in the hospital waiting room. Ismaël brought their relationship to an end with his infidelities, and Nora’s current fiancé, an art-world impresario, is remote from Elias and probably not an ideal mate. The man she is closest to, her godlike father, is on his deathbed. Shrouded in grief and disappointment, Queen Nora maintains her regal bearing – even refusing comfort when she finally does break down.
For egoistic Ismaël, the issue of mental disturbance really cuts two ways, just as the ridiculous cape he wears to a party is both a sign of his character’s nobility and an unintentional self-parody. He may be one of the film’s kings, but he is a mad king, like George III: Flailing in four points, raiding the pharmacy to supply his lawyer with drugs, bursting into an impromptu breakdance, and even railing at the staff psychiatrist (Catherine Deneuve) with an over-the-top misogynistic diatribe about how men “negotiate with the issue of Being” and “women have no souls,” he’s seemingly beyond help. Funny then, that his long-time female psychoanalyst, Dr. Devereaux, played by buxom French-African actress Elsa Wolliaston, provides him with a breakthrough. Through her humorously anti-Freudian interventions (she is modeled, after all, on ethnopsychiatrist George Devereaux, who famously studied the dreamworld of Indian “savages” in the ’60s), Ismaël regains his composure. Late in the film, when his story and Nora’s finally coincide over the fate of Elias, he is able to conjure a depth of wisdom and big-heartedness that seemed unthinkable before.
More than any other filmmaker at work today, Desplechin has mastered the art of the group study, tracking the bustling, frantic sex lives and self-doubts of refined twenty- and thirty-somethings whose minds and hearts are the raw materials he molds with such fervid delight. Desplechin’s ensemble productions regularly feature such talents as Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, Jeanne Balibar, Marianne Denicourt, and Lázló Szabó – actors whose soulful, energetic role-playing is a vital part of the director’s appeal. Other important collaborators include cinematographer Eric Gautier, editor Laurence Briaud, and frequent cowriters Noémie Lvovsky and Emmanuel Bourdieu (son of the eminent sociologist Pierre Bourdieu).
Desplechin’s first film, the 54-minute feature La vie des morts (1991), follows the internecine dynamics among family members who’ve gathered in a flat after the attempted suicide of a young relative. Next came La Sentinelle (1992), an absorbing, mystifying drama set against the backdrop of late Cold War political intrigue. At the heart of the story is Mathias Barillet (Emmanuel Salinger), a forensic intern with diplomatic ties who, after a long, disturbing train ride from Germany to Paris, discovers a mummified head in his luggage. Slower and more somber than other works, Desplechin’s important early film trolls the benighted landscape of European cultural memory via a man who’s described as “A zero. No friends or enemies. Empty. A desert.” Mathias embarks on a journey, like many of Desplechin’s protagonists, that leads him down dark, byzantine passages and (in this case) a harrowing confrontation with the legacy of war and his own mortality. But he emerges with a new form of self-knowledge.
In his next two films, My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into an Argument (1996, right) and the English-language period piece Esther Kahn (2000), Desplechin displays an even keener interest in the psychology of his characters, externalizing their states of mind through the use of first-person and third-person voiceovers, respectively, and in the chatty, animated dialogues that characterize all of his films. My Sex Life focuses mainly on the romantic and existential anxieties of a failed philosophy professor, Paul Dedalus (Amalric), who dreams of becoming a writer. Unable to finish his Ph.D., the selfish, antic, tormented Paul breaks up with Esther (Devos), his girlfriend of ten years, after she’s accepted to translation school – a path he encouraged. Meanwhile, he gets involved with ravishing, manipulative Valerie (Balibar), and pines for his best friend’s lover, Sylvia (Denicourt), with whom he’s had an ongoing but conflicted affair.
The canvas of Paul’s life comes rushing headlong at us in a blitz of flashbacks and narrative interleaving, but Desplechin is also attentive to the private anguish of Esther, who bravely tries to put heartbreak behind her. One of Desplechin’s concerns is to show us how the mind can eclipse the heart with theorems, rationales, and the coldness of abstraction. At first, Paul is an intellectual who can only “think” other people, like his nemesis M. Rabier, a pretentious doctor of epistemology who wonders aloud whether his pet monkey is nothing more than a hairy “machine.” Paul may be self-destructive and arrogant (“Is there anything more dazzling than the possible?” he quips to a friend, quoting Kierkegaard while admiring a young woman’s derriere), but he’s also on a messy, careening quest to find the authentic link between self and other, to discover his own potential by recognizing the humanity of others.
Based on a little-known short story by Arthur Symons, Esther Kahn (right) pursues the theme of self-actualization from a different vantage point and sensibility – that of acting and the creative drive – though it is no less intense as a portrait of interior life. Played by Summer Phoenix, the title character is a poor girl from a large family of Jewish tailors in late 19th-century Britain who fantasizes about life on the stage – quite literally, too, as her mother catches her masturbating to pictures of glamorous theater actresses. Stone-faced, sullen, and not obviously bright, Esther takes her first “breath of life” when she appears in a Yiddish production of The Wages of Sin and breaks from home to join a London theater company. Eventually, she comes under the tutelage of Nathan (Ian Holm), an elder thesp who recognizes that his young student is a “stone,” trapped inside herself: “I think you’re a puppet,” he tells her, “pretending to be happy or sad.”
As with the belated enlightenment of Paul Dedalus, Esther’s escape from insularity and emotional turpitude hinges on opening herself up to the realm of sexual experience. “With open eyes, full of a sense of responsibility,” Esther seeks out a lover at Nathan’s behest, losing her virginity to philandering drama critic Phillip (Fabrice Desplechin, the director’s brother). When he subsequently beds an exotic Italian dancer, Esther finally experiences a catharsis. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the heartsick Esther attempts to sabotage her starring role in Hedda Gabler by chewing a mouthful of broken glass moments before the curtain rises. The parallel between Esther’s predicament and Ibsen’s vengeful woman is an inspired structural device, but the film also carries echoes of Cassavetes’ Opening Night as it blends backstage drama and the theme of life-as-improvised-performance.
Playing “In the Company of Men” (2003), adapted from a caustic play by Edward Bond, delves again into the world of theater, but this time with a postmodern twist. Like Jacques Rivette’s dual-format experiment L’Amour fou, this rarely seen film pairs a staging of the source play’s central dramatic narrative – a story about an alienated father and son engaged in a hostile, mutually destructive bid for an armaments factory – with handheld video footage of the same troupe of actors in rehearsal for the film, working through their own strategies and interpersonal conflicts. Again, Desplechin advances the idea of art, acting, theater, and film as practices that not only mirror and illuminate the endless varieties of human experience, as realism would have it, but that conspire to transform life itself.
If La Sentinelle, Esther Kahn, and My Sex Life demand patience on the part of a viewer, it’s not so much because they are difficult to watch or comprehend – Desplechin’s films are unusually fast-paced and heavily discursive yet, for the most part, perfectly intelligible – but because one simply cannot absorb the full richness of his allusive themes without repeated viewings. On another level, there is a restless energy to his films, both formally (quick pans and cuts, the use of multiple takes) and narratively (the jittery speech, abrupt shifts in tone, and constant actorly movement), that can seem at once invigorating and overwhelming. He has created a body of work that’s remarkable for its tonal range – a melange of comedy, tragedy, family melodrama, espionage thriller, bildungsroman, and period piece. But he is also adept at blending tones within scenes, creating avenues of intersubjective expression where agony and ecstasy, pathos and humor collide like the elements of an unstable compound. It is a further mark of his talent that he brings to cinema the density and complexity of literature.
Take, as a final example, another scenario from Kings and Queen. Part of the film’s thematic structure is based on the myth of Leda and the swan, in which Zeus ravishes a cherished mortal in the guise of a beautiful creature. The ancient tale is introduced in a voiceover at the beginning of the film and further amplified when Nora buys a print depicting the mythic love fable as a gift for her father. Nora is clearly aligned with Leda, just as her father, a professor of Greek, assumes the role of a deity. But the aspect of metamorphosis, illustrated in one of the film’s most powerful sequences, concerns a kind of conquest as well, one that reveals the terrible excesses of parental love.
In the pivotal scene, Nora discovers a hand-written letter tucked into the back of her late father’s unfinished book manuscript. As she begins reading the missive, the camera briefly captures the mix of emotions that cross her face. Instead of reverting to a voiceover track, Desplechin does something strange and surprising, subverting the aural-visual clichés that normally accompany such scenes: He cuts to an image of the dead man sitting in a nondescript room, reciting the devastating contents of his post-mortem manifesto directly to the camera – to Nora, to us. In that single moment, with its audacious inversion of word and image, Desplechin turns our understanding of the idealized father-daughter relationship inside out, using a technique that borrows from literary forms but belongs unquestionably to the art of film. It is gut-wrenchingly intimate and even grotesque, but like all of his intelligent efforts, beautifully cinematic as well.