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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Of Kings and Queen: Why Can’t More Films Be This Good?

My first night in LA for AFI Fest, I went to a screening of A Christmas Tale director Arnaud Desplechin‘s 2004 film, Kings and Queen, which was one of those films that’s been on my “geez, I need to see that” list for a while now; the opportunity to catch it on a big screen, with Desplechin in attendance and doing a talk about the film prior to its screening with LA Weekly‘s Scott Foundas, was too enticing to pass up. I’m so glad I carved out the time to see it, because it was thoughtful and complex and touched on truths about people and the way in which they chose to present and reveal themselves to others in a more honest, complicated way that most films care — or dare — to.

Desplechin shows us the parallel stories of Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) and Ismael (Mathieu Amalric). She is an art gallery manager, very together, who appears to be a loving mother to her young son. He journey in this story starts when she learns her father is dying of cancer and has only weeks to live.

Ismael is the man Nora was in a relationship with for much of her son’s life. A gifted violist, he ends up locked in a mental institution, where he must charm his way back into the real world while being hindered by his unfortunate tendency to say things like “women have no souls” to his female therapist.

We think we know what we think of these characters, we make base judgments about them based on the information Desplechin has chosen to reveal to us at the beginning, and from there, he unravels the knot, peeling back the layers of self-censorship and concealment to gradually reveal a reality very different from what we thought we knew.

Throughout the film, he weaves symbols and objects related to myth in subtle ways that enhance the underlying theme of story versus reality; I caught a few of those elements, but no doubt there were more I didn’t catch, and at some point I’d like to go back and rewatch the film on DVD, making a list of every one of them and then looking up the particular stories of each mythical element, the better to ponder to what extent Desplechin is making subtle statements about the characters or stories by referring to specific elements of mythology.

The film as a whole is an excellent exercise in the complex psychology of human relationships; it’s packed with moments that, as The Shins might say, lay flat our whole take on all that we’ve seen. Nora presents herself as a good, loving mother, but certain of her actions — and certain of her son’s reactions to her — indicate that all is not as rosy as she’d like the world to think. We think Nora and her father have a loving, positive, mutually supportive relationship — until something happens that flips our perception completely.

Our first encounters with Ismael, as he’s being committed to the psych world, convince us he’s a bit of a nutter. But is he, really? Or is he just reacting, as any of us would, to being locked in a psych unit against our will? Later, we see how Ismael, a violist who’s part of an elite quartet, finds that his own perception of his place in that group and the perception of others as to his relative importance within it is not what he thought. And so on.

If you’ve ever, in your own life, had a moment where your core beliefs about a situation, or the way you thought someone felt about you, underwent a major shift — you found out someone you love cheated on you, or that a beloved aunt who you thought cherished you as her favorite nephew never really cared for you, or that a friend you trusted to tell your most intimate secrets has betrayed your trust — then you understand the emotional power of what Desplechin does in this film. The way in which he presents human nature is unforgiving and a bit harsh at times, but it’s undeniably raw and evocative in the very rarity of its unflinching honesty. He never favors one character over another, nor does he seem to be particularly judging their choices in what they reveal, what they keep hidden, or the true nature of their characters. We see flashes of masks pulled asunder in all the characters, even Nora’s young son, and what Desplechin reveals in those moments, and how we react emotionally to them, refracts back on us as we’re watching it, revealing as much about ourselves and our own hidden secrets as the characters.

The people who populate Desplechin’s films are never the one-dimensional characters one tends to find in a lot of American films that focus around families. In the pre-show Q & A, Foundas asked the director about the way in which he tends to present families in his films; the director pondered briefly, shrugged, and then said that all families are dysfunctional, that’s why they exist. His penchant for making films that don’t pander to the expectations we have of how families should be portrayed is a bit unsettling — much more so with Kings and Queen than with his current release, A Christmas Tale, which is playing here at AFI Fest and will be in release soon — makes his work stand out amid so many other films that merely skim the surface of human nature, while Desplechin plunders the depths of our souls.

The performances in Kings and Queen by Amalric and Devos are fantastic; these are rich, meaty, complex characters full of real humanity in both its loveliness and its ugliness, and both actors sink their teeth into their roles, building characters who evoke the secrets and tales all of us keep buried inside. The roles of Nora and Ismael are the kind of weighty, challenging roles many American actors would love to have, but rarely have opportunity for, because we just don’t often make films this intellectually complex and engaging here, even in the world of indie film.

The only recent American film I can think of that even comes close to the searing honesty of Kings and Queen is Rachel Getting Married, which features the best role Anne Hathaway has ever been offered; her performance in that film reveals a side of her talent of which we’d previously only seen glimpses of potential. But even that excellent film pales somewhat in the shadow of a film like Kings and Queen, which digs deeper and more subtly, and is more wrenchingly evocative of our own flaws as human beings. It’s a rather challenging film to watch and, much like Adam Resurrected, is one of those films that I came to love more after mulling it over for a couple days.

Desplechin is a rare talent as a filmmaker; see his most recent release, A Christmas Tale, and then go find a DVD of Kings and Queens and watch it, too. Desplechin will make you ponder your own mythology, the picture you present to the world — and perhaps even to yourself. We may not like completely what we see when the mirror of the film refracts our own inner flaws back at us, but the power of such a film to really challenge us, to force us to peel back the layers that conceal our own inner natures, is a rare, compelling, and yes, even beautiful thing.

by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon