On Screen

'Kings and Queen': Uncommonly Good

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2005

YOU NEVER know what you're going to find at the Avalon, Washington's brave little engine of a movie theater that somehow manages to chug out an existence amid the sleek train service of the Landmarks, Regals and AMCs in the region. This weekend, the Avalon brings in a strangely alluring gem called "Kings and Queen," a French film by Arnaud Desplechin that's odd, complex and charming.

With one plot about Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) getting her life back together and another about her good-natured ex-husband trying to extricate himself from a mental asylum, the movie feels like a Gallic combination of "The Singing Detective," "King of Hearts" and "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

But "Kings and Queen," which references the Greek myth of Leda and the swan, is also none of these movies. It moves to its own snaky rules and rhythms, as it switches from the serious to the absurd, from tragic melodrama to stage comedy. It's a puzzle of a film, but not the kind that intimidates you with inscrutability so much as one that beckons you into its antic eccentricity. Both high and low in its cultural references, it suggests a soap opera penned by Ibsen and Pedro Almodovar. Perhaps the slogan of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" works here, too: Don't panic.

Nora, an art gallery owner and the single mother of 11-year-old Elias (Valentin Lelong), hasn't had it good in her adult life. Her first husband died. She divorced her second. She's headed into a marriage with a third man who may be rich but he's coldly detached. And Nora just found out Louis (Maurice Garrel), her father, is gravely ill with cancer.

While Nora weathers her pileup of pressure like a sphinx-martyr (she's serene, inscrutable and long-suffering, all at once), her ex-husband Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) stumbles into a nightmare. Two men from the local mental hospital show up at his doorstep to take him away. Apparently, there has been a "third party" who has taken steps to have him committed. Ismael knows he's a manic personality and a neurotic violist, but he knows, or thinks he knows, that he's not crazy.

It doesn't help his case that he keeps a noose suspended from the ceiling to give him a certain perspective on life. And he finds himself confronted with a particularly unsympathetic psychiatrist (Catherine Deneuve), who considers his odd-bird anxiety further proof that he needs to be doped up and straitjacketed. He can't win for being himself.

But Nora needs Ismael to watch Elias (the son of her first husband) while she deals with her pressing issues. When he finally gets out, with the help of a medication-junkie of a lawyer (Hippolyte Girardot), he has some paternal responsibilities to consider. And he has to decide if there's anything romantic to revisit with the suicidal patient (Magalie Woch) with whom he was intimate in the hospital.

A stuffed kitchen sink of ideas, references and plot twists, "Kings and Queen" (written by Desplechin and Roger Bohbot) is exciting for its very inventiveness. You just don't expect Nora, for instance, to have casual conversations with the ghost of her first husband, Pierre (Joachim Salinger). But he's part of the story, too. Devos, a regular player in Desplechin's six directed films, can seem plain and retiring, only to blossom into a far more dynamic being at any given time. She's a mystery unto herself, who can make an utterance such as "There are four men I've loved. I've killed two of them" sound delicate and sweet. She's like the movie around her. As soon as you think you have her figured out, there's the next scene to consider.

KINGS AND QUEEN (Unrated, 150 minutes) -- Contains some violence, sex scenes and obscenity. In French with subtitles. At the Avalon.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company