When Nora Cotterelle (Emmanuelle Devos) first glides into view in Arnaud Desplechin's sprawling and exuberant "Kings and Queen," you almost feel as though she's wafted in on the strains of "Moon River," floating in the Parisian spring air like some flowery perfume. In fact, she's just stepped out of a taxi, and paused in front of the art gallery she runs to fill us in on the significant events in her life so far. The 35-year-old mother of a 10-year old boy, Elias (Valentin Lelong), Nora has been married twice, widowed and divorced once each, and is now newly engaged to Jean-Jacques (Olivier Rabourdin), a man she believes truly loves her because, as she says, he strives to satisfy her every desire.
Nora is such a poised and elegant specimen of Parisian womanhood, and so vulnerable, that at first you want to swat away increasingly clear evidence of her narcissism like a fly. The stories she tells about herself, the way she shapes her life's defining tragedies into a linear narrative and the shy and brave way she presents it all to the camera doesn't invite judgment at first so much as they inspire self-reflection. Observing her in full self-mythologizing mode (she identifies with Leda of Greek mythology, seduced by Zeus posing as a swan) is a little like pausing in front of a store window and catching an unflattering reflection of yourself. Surely (because you are not exactly as you present yourself, either) she can't be this gracious, this long-suffering, this exquisitely Bergmanesque and doggedly hopeful.
Of course, she can't.
A complex, boldly experimental movie plotted like a thriller and paced like a farce, "Kings and Queen" is category-defying film that's as smart and emotionally resonant as it is entertaining. At 2 hours and 30 minutes, full of scenes that feel like they belong in at least two films, "Kings and Queen" burrows into your psyche and stays there for days. Desplechin is obsessed with psychoanalysis (he also gamely makes fun of his obsession in the film), and after a while the film takes on the characteristics of a universal dream. Watching the characters struggle to understand the forces that shaped them, you find yourself doing the same.
In many ways, "Kings and Queen" is a visceral mystery, a whodunit in search of the emotional truth. And Desplechin -- who in previous films such as "Esther Kahn" and "My Sex Life" also borrowed from familiar genres to slip his singular vision into something a little more comfortable -- would much sooner let us come to our own conclusions about his characters than crack the authorial whip.
After Nora's story is under way, the director swaps Henry Mancini for an avant-garde score, and trades the honey-coated realism of Nora's version of her story for the darkly absurdist worldview of her second husband, Ismael (Mathieu Amalric). A puckish violinist who plays in a string quartet and sees himself as a Kafkaesque character in a world of bureaucratic wolves, Ismael sits in his darkened apartment, simultaneously eating a burger, smoking a cigarette, listening to French hip-hop and contemplating a noose he keeps at the ready for -- mostly -- philosophical reasons. (His answering machine is fixed to hurl prerecorded abuse at the tax agents who are trying to track him down.) He is visited by a pair of farcical orderlies, who inform him that he is being committed to a psychiatric hospital. There he tries, unsuccessfully, to defend his sanity to a cool hospital director played by Catherine Deneuve.
By then it's clear that "Kings and Queen" is not going to turn out to be the well-ordered bourgeois romance hinted at in the opening scenes. And it's a testament to Desplechin's insight that the less unified the movie's tone, the more it resembles real life. Nora and Ismael's stories seem unconnected at first until Nora travels to Grenoble to visit her father, Louis (Maurice Garrel), a professor and author, and discovers that he's terminally ill. Desperate to find someone to care for Elias while she tends to her father in his last days, Nora frantically searches for Ismael. Ismael, meanwhile, is trying to free himself from the hospital, where he's drawn into a reluctant romance with an anorexic suicidal student named Arielle (Magali Woch).
If Nora ruthlessly bends her life to conform to her idea of what it should be, Ismael careens through his days getting caught up in bizarre adventures. His eccentricity wins him as many enemies as it does friends -- among them, the hilariously drugaddled lawyer who hits on the idea of getting the tax collectors off his back by making his insanity retroactive.