Bright Lights Film Journal

The Disturbance of the Real: Arnaud Desplechin’s <em>Kings and Queen</em>

How real is the director’s much-vaunted “multilayered depiction of reality”?

The question is, does it frighten you more that your congenial neighbor – the one whose house has the hummingbird floating just outside the picture window – might really be some grotesque out of David Lynch or Todd Solondz, or that he might be the BTK Killer skating across the bland surface of municipal employment and church commitment? The former certainly exists, though only the most unlucky of us encounter such a creature in anything other than our ultimate or – not wanting to naively prejudge the worst – penultimate nightmares. According to Arnaud Desplechin in Kings and Queen, however, the latter could easily be dancing among us at a rather lifeless suburban party to celebrate her engagement to a prospective third husband. What’s more, we will probably never know it. At most we will sense something missing – we know not what – like the pages torn from a book for reasons that will never be revealed, in order to conceal truths of which we will be forever unaware.

If my comparison to BTK is extreme, it diminishes the disturbing character of Kings and Queen‘s protagonist not at all. Emmanuelle Devos’s Nora may not exactly bind, torture, and kill, and she may have actually killed – in one way or another – only two people, but her self-involved, Holly Golightly concoction of a phony RomCom conquest of a “cycle of woes” (for which she acknowledges no responsibility) smashes the illusory surface of quotidian safety and ordinariness no less than does the appearance of the serial killer next door. Indeed, Nora and her world being a lot closer than that of BTK to what most of us will live in, she upsets appearances a good deal more distressingly than he does. In all the just praise of Desplechin’s unusually complex characters and his multilayered depiction of reality, there has been far too little observation offered as to the nature of that reality. Let’s, then, recount a few particulars.

Nora, we are told quite early by Nora herself, has had two husbands – one who died and one she divorced. This is the first of Nora’s casual deceptions, one she reveals (though doesn’t acknowledge) very quickly, as she offers the woeful tale of how she fought the French bureaucracy to give her son his father’s last name – a fight necessitated by the fact that she wasn’t, in truth, married to him before he died. This is not a mere inconsistency. The film is remarkable for its – and Nora’s – multiple generic gestures. She may begin in romantic comedy mood (tellingly, there is no love interest – Nora’s current fiancé is a nearly absent cipher) but the story of Nora’s fight for her child’s name is like a domesticated, liberal-democratic take on The Fixer’s doggedly heroic struggle to win his freedom. She loved him so; her son would bear his name. Except that we learn much later in the film that her son’s father was actually a callow youth she barely knew, and who viewed the prospect of a life with his shrewish girlfriend with such alarm that he risked and delivered death to himself to disdain it. Maybe. It seems possible later on – and Nora says it herself – that she killed him. The enacted memory of the incident – in which he shoots himself – is hers, but nothing Nora reports about herself and her life, like her undying love for her first “husband,” can be considered reliable.

Again, early in the film, Nora departs to visit her ailing father (Maurice Garrel), confiding to her fiancé that she visits her father always with cowed trepidation. Nothing we see in the relation between the two accounts for this. They are quiet and gentle with each other. She seems loving. Yet as his illness advances – as he lingers in a painful approach to death – Nora’s euthanizing of her father seems a trifle hasty. We have heard more about her spiritual travail – her faithlessness before the specter of death – than we have about his agony, and her sister arrives just days later feeling more than a little cheated. Now, I have siblings. Maybe you too. So I ask you: if you were even prepared to do it – you think you might wait until they got there? Nora responds to her sister’s complaint with an assertion of the awful weight that she, not her wayward sister, had had to bear, which is probably the universal rationalization for all questionable acts: circumstance entitled me.

What is easily glossed over about the world of Kings and Queen – as, indeed, it has been glossed over, so effectively does Desplechin muddy the incidental and causal waters in the manner that life itself does – is how common and almost casual are life’s momentous betrayals. They happen, at times, so messily that we fail to fully register them. Not only does Nora disregard her sister’s feelings and filial rights in the matter of their father’s death, but in the story’s other strand, that of Nora’s second husband, Ismael, it is Ismael’s sister who secretly has him committed to an institution, not with any apparent painful regret, but with indifference and a determination finally to be rid of the nuisance he has been to her. It is, indeed, family and the various bonds of affection and connection that provide the readiest condition for betrayal. So Ismael’s other siblings respond with neither generosity nor graciousness to the news that their parents wish to leave an equal share of their possessions to the cousin they took in and reared as another son. And Ismael’s long-time musical colleague, upon Ismael’s release from the hospital, rejects him and boots him from their string quartet with utter coldness and hostility. It isn’t that Ismael may not deserve this treatment. Though as played by Mathieu Amalric, Ismael can be charmingly voluble and antic, he is also clearly a royally unstable pain in the ass. It is just that life in Kings and Queen offers no Yeatsian moments of “glad grace,” whether one deserves them or not. No one really comes though for anyone else, and if seems someone does, it is with questionable motivation, with resentment, or to lack of appreciation. Accordingly, when Ismael, in finest romantic comedy fashion, charges into a crowded party to beam the sudden light bulb of his love on the fragile, equally quirky and ill young woman he met in the hospital, it is a moment neither of love joyously fulfilled nor comically delayed. It is a moment simply off. Though this woman perhaps understands Ismael and his excesses better than anyone, he is, at the moment, too over the top even for her. The encounter goes flat. Life rewards neither behavior nor expectation, and nothing is satisfactorily resolved, which is no doubt why Nora, however inappropriately, feels the need to make it all up.

The film ends with perhaps the two greatest betrayals, one deceptively casual, the other in part casually momentous and then deceptive. In the former, Ismael meets for the afternoon with Elias (Valentin Lelong), Nora’s son by her dead boyfriend. Ismael was Elias’s stepfather during the boy’s formative years, and Elias loves him. Now that Nora is an orphan herself, she wishes to make arrangements should Elias somehow lose her. She wishes Ismael to adopt him. But he does not. In an overly long, annoying dissertation on the hard realities of life that make us strong, Ismael delivers to the quiet, loving Elias an extended rationalization for failing to reward a child’s love that itself masquerades as an act of love. Not even children are spared the passing backhand of worldly indifference.

Elias, however, is not the only child in the film to receive less than, at least, she might think she deserves. In the film’s final, shocking revelation, Nora peruses the last manuscript pages her writer father wrote before he died. She discovers in them an epistolary address to her that expresses her father’s complete contempt for what he considered her utter selfishness. She reads of her father’s hatred for her – a hatred so corrosive that he wishes she were dying instead of him. A father wishing his daughter dead in his place: what greater betrayal of love’s natural directives could there be? It matters little whether Nora, for all her flaws, is quite deserving of a hatred so intense, and from that source. In the world of Kings and Queen, the justness of human relations and the return they give are an irrelevant consideration. Life gives back what it will, and as the result of a messily complex emotional and circumstantial calculus that has nothing to do with just rewards.

It is only during Nora’s reading of her father’s manuscript that we learn of his having covered up her possible culpability in her boyfriend’s death. We see her tell him, presumably that night or the next morning, that her fingerprints, too, might be found on the gun – she and the boyfriend, she claims, would sometimes play with it. It doesn’t appear her father believes her. No doubt it was this incident, as well as much else it represents about Nora, that accounted for her father’s hatred. No doubt it was this knowledge her father had of her that contributed to Nora’s usual anxiousness in his presence.

These revelations, delivered to us through an act of reading and via fragmentary flashback, arrive with no particularly dramatic force. Rather, their power is, precisely, revelatory – in how completely they upend the narrative line that Nora has so far provided. If we hadn’t fully recognized them before in the mess of circumstance, we begin to note now the discrepancies between the slippery representations we have been given of events and how we might more appropriately view them. Indeed, Desplechin is anti-dramatic in ways both beneficial and detrimental to his storytelling and art. Though Nora is clearly overwhelmed by the revelation of her father’s manuscript, when she leaves the room where she has been reading and rejoins her sister, she says nothing. She is, to us, visibly in turmoil, but she gives her sister no indication that anything is amiss, and her sister fails to detect anything. It is understandable that Nora would not be quick to share such apparently damning information, but from all appearances she will never confide it to anyone. What she will do is suppress it, emotionally and physically, so that no sign of the truth will ever be seen in her or, materially, in the world.

Thus we come to that engagement party. The bland surface of unexceptional life. In the midst of it, Nora unobtrusively slips downstairs to the basement to retrieve her father’s manuscript, from which she has torn the damning pages. She burns them. She returns upstairs to the party, where her father’s editor arrives to collect the manuscript, for posthumous publication. He notices the missing pages. Nora plays dumb. There is something odd – just odd – about the missing pages, and in the way the editor looks at Nora. But she knows nothing, of course, so what can she say? And the editor leaves. And she goes back to her party. And no one present to celebrate the engagement of this rather ordinary woman in an ordinary French suburb would ever imagine that she may once have killed her lover and that her father hated her and wished her dead. And they will never know, either. Stand behind her in the checkout line. Say bonjour as she leaves the shop. Still Nora will have addressed us to conclude her story, announced her “cycle of woes” to be ended, and the hidden, undiscoverable, perishable nature of truth – and the falseness of our apparent reality – will have descended on us like a cloud.

It is the very uneventful way, too – the very undramatic way – in which truth is lost that may so softly, but surely, strike us. That is the film’s strength. But it is its debilitating weakness too. Desplechin’s champions, if they mention it at all, like to blithely say of his films’ long running times how the time flies and that one does not notice it at all – over two and a half hours in the case of Kings and Queen. Well, I confess, I noticed it, and I’m not alone. Desplechin is notorious, even among many who appreciate his work, for the inordinate length of his films. He seems not to encounter scenes or speeches he doesn’t love enough to nurture into a doddering old age. Get in early, leave late; breed your darlings like tribbles.

It is one approach to explore undramatic life; it is another to do it undramatically. This is the fallacy of verisimilitude. One may hold the mirror up to nature, but one is ill advised to completely mistake the silver backing for the forest. It ain’t the real world. You can’t walk into it. I don’t mean by this to say that there is no dramatic incident in Kings and Queen. There is. But it is provided no dramatic shape. Desplechin is deeply fascinated by character – a basic prerequisite for drama – but he is more interested in character in conflict with itself than character in conflict with other characters. Thus all the talk – and not the talk that generates the friction and heat of contact with others, but that weaves an endless web around the spider of personality. One simply cannot tell, either from knowledge of craft or a sensible connection to any crafted narrative organics, where one is in the story. But this is not getting lost in the story; it is getting lost in time, and it can make an hour seem longer, not shorter.

It is common to argue in defense of such filmmaking that the filmmaker is using “distancing techniques,” that he is “subverting narrative” in an act of “audience alienation.” These are far too easy claims, made much too far into the game. To what end that serves rather than undermines the filmmaker’s deepest concerns? A hundred years of manifestos in art, and fifty years of theory, have confused intellectual rationale with artful conception. Desplechin is not Robert Bresson immersing us in the plasticity of film, nor is he Michelangelo Antonioni exploring cinematic durée. Neither should he wish for the thirty-seven film students a year who will dutifully submit themselves to Jacque Rivette’s epics in tedium. At the risk of having my laminated and framed Hollywood contempt card recalled, Desplechin could use a producer who would force him to trim twenty to thirty minutes, and to indulge his inclination less and craft his art more. I’m not generally pleased by the dictum that “less is more,” uttered so often, I find, by those who would opt for less because they cannot deliver more; but in this case, it would certainly, beneficially, be less, and done a little differently, it might even be better.