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Same rainbow’s end
Plunging into Moon River in Rois et reine

A woman asks an ex-lover to adopt the young son she had by another man, who died before the son’s birth and whom she married in a posthumous ceremony. That’s one version of the story told in Arnaud Desplechin’s Rois et reine. A second is: while struggling to cope with the imminent death of her father, who has just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, a woman receives a visit from the ghost of her husband. Questions arise about the husband’s death. Was it an accident? Was it suicide? If the latter, did she somehow drive him to it? Was it murder?

A third version might center on the ex-lover, a violist who is committed to a mental hospital. But his story — a farrago of adventures — is less easy to describe. Now is the time to inform readers (better late than never) that the woman is named Nora and is played by Emmanuelle Devos and that the ex-lover, Ismaël, is played by Mathieu Amalric. And at the same time I might as well admit that the story of Rois et reine, one of the most brilliant films of recent years, can’t be synopsized and that much of the interest of the film lies not just in trying to keep up with it but in trying to formulate it and recount it to yourself as you watch.

Rois et reine is all about tonal shifts and small adjustments in point of view that make it impossible to sum up a character or what’s happening with him or her at any moment. Narrated on multiple planes of present, past, and possible past (and possible present?), Nora’s troubles with the men in her life accumulate more and more-complicated ambiguities as the film goes on. These ambiguities become so sinister that this person who at first seems so easy to sympathize with becomes plausible as the "monster of egotism" she’s charged with being (in a message from the dead that gives the film its most lacerating scene). In a radical and subtle decentering, Desplechin cuts between scenes involving Nora and scenes involving Ismaël, who confronts her descent into moral chaos with his increasing mastery of his own situation.

The head of the mental hospital (Catherine Deneuve) tells Ismaël that his behavior is "excessive." But he isn’t the only one of whom this can be said: in scene after scene, Desplechin’s jump cuts keep aiming the film at one after another form of behavioral excess: a pop-eyed orderly’s theatrical manner; the freakish exultation of Ismaël’s prescription-drug-popping lawyer; the rage of Ismaël’s embittered sister, who may be the mysterious third party who had him committed; a nurse’s overstimulation with Ismaël’s breakdancing skill and his charm; the hysteria of Nora’s lover, Pierre, on being abruptly awakened.

It’s a film of disproportionate reactions, or reactions whose fitness we’re unable to measure because Desplechin never gives us the whole context. (And part of the meaning of the film is that since the whole context can never be known, people must, and do, invent the contexts that suit them,) Nora’s reactions are more inordinate than anyone’s. "I brought you up not to show your feelings," her father tells her. In fact, she shows emotions all the time, three or four per scene; her face changes constantly (Devos’s performance is stunning, as is, in a different register, Amalric’s), but Desplechin makes it a question whether these are the emotions she feels or whether she’s trying them out.

The film begins and ends with a guitar rendition of "Moon River," alluding to Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which introduced the Henry Mancini perennial. The benign song bounds the fragmented, unstable world of Rois et reine within a pastoral frame and suggests another way to recount its story: as a journey of "two drifters off to see the world, . . . after the same rainbow’s end." The sublime and hopeful final section doesn’t deny the distressing tragicomedy that has gone before but puts it in a fresh perspective and lets its contradictory elements resonate with one another. Which is a way of letting the rainbow’s end belong to the viewer.

Issue Date: May 20 - 26, 2005
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