We start out looking at Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), being interviewed by someone. She talks about her OK life with nonchalance and a nervous smile. Her job as a gallery owner seems boring, but financially substantial enough to allow for her to go visit her cancer-ridden father (Maurice Garrel) and try to pawn off her 10-year-old child, Elias (Valentin Lelong), on Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), her second husband and Elias' main father figure besides Nora's own father.
Ismael has his own troubles. His sister has teamed up with his supposed friend to put him in the nuthouse, right when the IRS is on his ass for $700,000. Bad timing, or is it? His lawyer (scene stealer Hippolyte Girardot) thinks they can use the mental hospital as an excuse to duck out of the IRS charges. Throughout all of it, Ismael seems to just be interested in goofing off and flirting with Arielle (Magalie Woch), a suicidal college student who studies Chinese.
Eyebrows will tweak at the 150 minute runtime, especially since almost every scene is either Devos or Amalric with someone else. Inexplicably, the film never lags and keeps a distinct pace and a shocking liveliness. More than anything, Desplechin reveals himself as a great director of actors. Devos (so good in Jacques Audiard's Read My Lips) holds the screen in rapturous limbo. Nora is likable because of her situation but she has secrets and her family's emotions with her are thorny at best. You can see the uncertainty and melancholy play across Devos' face and eyes with devastating effect. Amalric conjures up her loopy match in Ismael the musician. The way Paul Giamatti conjured up alcoholism in such a hushed manner in Sideways, Amalric's performance invokes a formidable insanity that is acceptable and palpable in equal strides. When he confesses his feelings to Arielle in a musketeer cape, it's the work of an actor who has tapped deeply into his character.
Desplechin deals in what seems to be chaos, held together by tendons of brutally honest emotions. When Nora finds a small note at the end of her father's unpublished novel, that says what he really thought of her, Desplechin puts the father on a stool and simply has him say everything, instead of a trite voiceover. Maurice Garrel handles the scene with deft restraint, letting a lifetime of bitter sentiment flow out of his mouth like poetry. These small stylistic excursions somehow keep the film lean but with a broad scope, and it never interrupts the flow.
Abetted without fail by cinematographer Eric Gautier and editor Laurence Briaurd, Desplechin has created a peculiar and dazzling film from the intersection of these two lives. The characters are insistently creative and surprising in just the right ways to keep us interested in what's next. When we think Arielle will cut herself, she instead giggles; when we think Ismael will thrash out at his old partner, he courteously backs out and apologizes for taking up his time. It's the sort of unsettling tension that keeps people coming back for more, and the film proves, at the very least, that Desplechin is a director that garners due attention.
Aka Rois et reine.
Run time: 150 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 22nd December 2004
Box Office USA: $0.2M
Distributed by: Wellspring
Production compaines: Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Why Not Productions, France 2 Cinéma, Rhône-Alpes Cinéma
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 49 Rotten: 7
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Producer: Pascal Caucheteux
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