It's a surprise when Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen" opens with the familiar song, Henri Mancini's "Moon River." The unmistakable music harkens back to Audrey Hepburn's flighty heroine Holly Golightly, and just like "Breakfast At Tiffanys," the film's opening shot features a taxi cab pulling to the curb of a tree-lined city street in the early morning light. Even before Emmanuelle Devos makes her first appearance as Nora Cotterelle, Desplechin had me spellbound. Who is this Nora?
The exquisite Emmanuelle Devos is certainly no Holly Golightly. Portraying a mature, 35-year-old woman, the manger of a gallery, twice divorced and mother of a ten-year-old boy, Devos is no wisp of a girl. Like Holly, she uses men to her own purposes. But Nora not only uses men. She controls them, devours them whole. In her nuanced performance, this pouty, beautifully dressed woman is a walking contradiction, a delicate monster. Love Nora, and chances are you'll suffer: Nora's first husband possibly dies of her own doing (in a chilling flashback.) Nora's second husband ends up in a mental institution not long after she leaves him. A shattering missive from Nora's father only brings more confusion about the true nature of her character.
Nora's onscreen story is a true melodrama. She arrives for a short visit with her beloved father only to discover that he is dying. Suddenly, Nora must make crucial decisions about his treatment, and she must find her wayward younger sister before his death. Confronting the passing of her own father, Nora decides she needs to find a father for her own son. She seeks out husband number two.
There are actually two movies going on simultaneously in "Kings and Queen." In the first movie, there is Nora and her pain. In the second, there is Nora's second husband Ismaël Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), who has recently been committed into a mental institution against his will. That sounds awfully serious, but this storyline, in fact, is hilarious. Amalric gives a virtuoso performance, balancing the impact of Devo's dramatic pathos with his impish charm; he is a true crack-up. Ismaël has a terrific time in the hospital, verbally sparring with his beautiful psychiatrist (the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve in a delicious cameo appearance), seducing both his young hipster nurse and another attractive patient, anorexic, suicidal Arielle, whom he affectionately calls "La Chinoise" because she studies Chinese. Ismaël also gleefully steals drugs for his drug-addicted lawyer, all the while avoiding the tax collectors who are closing in on him.
Desplechin introduces a wonderful, engaging cast of supporting characters--friends, lovers, family members, vindictive violin players. Femme fatale Nora remains emblematic, a mystery, but the boylike Ismaël grows up. At two and an a half hours, both halves of Desplechin's film sprawl far and wide before coming finally together in a richly satisfying end.