The following observation is partly a joke, but it contains enough truth that I offer it here with a straight face. With serene predictability, every three years or so the New York Times Sunday Arts and Leisure section prints an article excitedly proclaiming that France’s cinema has produced a “new New Wave.”
This, of course, is equal parts cinephilic wishfulness and sheer puffery, and the directors thus touted–who have included the likes of Luc Besson, Mathieu Kassovitz, Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas–regularly fail to meet the hopes of those seeking a new Truffaut or Godard and a return of France’s celluloid glories of the 1960s.
For my money, there is one younger French director who merits such comparisons, and that’s meant as a compliment without a hint of backhandedness. Arnaud Desplechin’s films aren’t in the least imitative or coyly retrospective. Yet in their surface energies and underlying impulses they inevitably recall the most creative and influential era of modern French cinema.
Desplechin’s first feature, La Sentinelle (1992), may be my favorite French movie of the past two decades. (It didn’t get a wide release in the States; I’d urge you to seek it out on tape or DVD.) Dark and enigmatic, it opens at the end of the Cold War and concerns a young student of forensic medicine who arrives in Paris after a train journey and discovers that his luggage contains a mummified head, origins unknown. With its aura of menace and psychological mystery, the film has a dramatic mood that is overtly Hitchcockian, yet its lyrical view of its attractive young Parisian characters also recalls the films of François Truffaut–a combination that of course brings to mind the momentous encounter recorded in Hitchcock/Truffaut, a key New Wave text.
I realize that approaching Desplechin in terms of these illustrious forebears risks losing readers too young to remember the French New Wave and the intoxicating effect it had on many young Americans four decades ago. For those readers, here’s a quick gloss on two key attributes of that crucial movement.
First, the New Wave’s films announced a new orientation toward life: Recording the way people actually talked and behaved, how places looked and how the flux of experience felt as it swept by, became a central principal that guided everything from casting to cinematography, and it offered a heady alternative to the tired formulas of both Hollywood and older French cinema. Second, New Wave movies displayed a new attitude toward art and culture: Not only did they include countless references to painters, poets, philosophers and other filmmakers, they also seemed like they might have been inspired by or modeled on poems, paintings, dances, what have you–a characteristic that aligned them more with European intellectual tradition than American entertainment imperatives.
These two tendencies, which for concision’s sake I will call the naturalistic and the referential, sometimes operated in harmony, yet they also contained enough innate tensions to cause a split between the New Wave’s two most emblematic directors over a central cinematic device: artifice, especially that rooted in the storytelling mechanisms of the 19th-century “bourgeois” novel. While Godard, from the early ’60s on, increasingly rejected novelistic contrivance in favor of essayistic objectivity, Truffaut delighted in his idiosyncratic use of various fictional sources, from the magisterial stories of Henry James to the pulpiest of U.S. crime fiction.
In this regard, too, Desplechin, as his terrific new film Kings and Queen shows, belongs squarely in the Truffaut camp (or perhaps I should say the Hitchcock/Truffaut camp). Rather than shying away from fictional contrivance, Kings and Queen exults in it. Though running two and a half hours, the TGV-paced film packs in enough narrative material to fill a 10-hour mini-series. (Indeed, more than Truffaut, it recalls the authorial munificence of Truffaut’s own hero, Balzac.) At the same time, its elaborate plotting doesn’t serve to bury the natural. On the contrary, the story’s sprawling expanse almost seems designed to offer Desplechin both an overarching metaphor and countless individual moments for registering life’s brilliant, hectic, endlessly challenging messiness.
The story opens at the sunny Parisian art gallery run by Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), who is hurriedly preparing for a trip. There are two things about this initial scene that we should note for later consideration. One is that Nora talks to us, introducing herself and her world: She is currently involved with a well-off guy named Jean-Jacques (whom she appears to like rather than love), having previously had two ill-starred relationships, the first with a young man who died before the birth of their son, now a boy staying with her father in Grenoble. The other thing to note here is that Nora chooses as a gift for her father, whom she’s going to visit, an old engraving titled “Leda and the Swan.”
This is the first of numerous classical allusions, which interlard a spate of other cultural references ranging from Apollinaire to “Moon River.” Clearly, the New Wave’s rampant referentiality isn’t dead. Yet Desplechin wears his learning lightly, and more to the point perhaps, he uses it to steer us toward rather than away from real emotional depths. Not long after reaching Grenoble, Nora learns that her taciturn father has cancer and is headed for an imminent, very painful demise; that prospect also threatens to upend the world of her son, who regards his grandfather as a surrogate dad. No matter how dizzy, scattered and even whimsical the story of Kings and Queen may later appear, it is always anchored by the gravity of the wrenching emotional passage that Nora faces in Grenoble.
Jumping back to Paris, meanwhile, the film interjects a second storyline, this one as loopy as first one is serious. Ismael (Mathieu Amalric), who plays viola in a classical quartet, is holed up in his apartment thinking he’s got the tax collectors at bay when he’s surprised by orderlies from a mental institution. They’ve come to take him away, and when he protests that he’s not crazy or suicidal, his chaotic living space fails to back him up: It features a noose hanging over a chair. Locked up against his will, Ismaël gets off to a bad start with his chain-smoking doctor (Catherine Deneuve, in a droll cameo) by explaining to her that women have no souls.
Although for a while the separate stories of Nora and Ismael appear to have no connection, Desplechin suddenly shows us that they do, and thereafter they parallel and occasionally intersect each other. In one sense, these narrative cross-currents are part of the juggling act that Desplechin undertook when he set out to make a film that would be like “two films glued together,” as he put it. The challenge involves not simply disparate story strands, but also essential differences in tone, which the director has typically explained in terms of cinematic references. Nora’s story, he said, was inspired by the “grand and mysterious heroines” of Hitchcock movies like Rebecca and Notorious. Ismael’s tale, meanwhile, is “a burlesque farce in the manner of Mel Brooks or Harold Lloyd.”
Can such elements possibly cohere? If I’d read about Kings and Queen before seeing it, I might have suspected a show-offy academic exercise. But Desplechin’s film succeeds because he operates like a slightly tipsy (but very gutsy) tightrope walker working without a net. From section to section, scene to scene, and even in individual moments, the whole enterprise feels like it could fall apart, just come crashing to the pavement. And yet it keeps going, and keeps you locked in its edgy embrace, due solely to Desplechin’s conviction, his willingness to dare, his skill at making everything hinge not on plausibility or neatness but on the passionate zeal of his filmmaking. “No more timid films!” he exclaims in the movie’s press notes, and you have to hand it to him: Kings and Queen has more pure artistic nerve than a year’s worth of Hollywood films.
The New Wave overthrew what was called France’s “tradition of quality,” replacing studio-bound refined professionalism with an emphasis on the auteur’s idiosyncratic sensibility, flaws and all. Desplechin’s work has that kind of idiomatic energy, with all the eccentricity and potential for excess it implies. Like the film’s visual attack, with its luminous hand-held naturalism and stuttering Godardian jump-cuts, the story leaps and lunges, veering into memory and dream and turning up a never-ending profusion of subplots and new characters. The end result can seem like cinema for cinema’s sake, a shot of exhilarating stylistic bravado that’s great fun on its own terms but perhaps not much more than that.
I would argue, though, that the film repays a second viewing and careful thought afterward. One thing to ponder is that the overall story seems to contain many little stories whose claims on truth depend on who is telling them. Thus it’s not unimportant that Nora is narrating the film as it opens, and again near the end, but that she’s finally displaced by her son. Desplechin isn’t offering up anything as banal as a postmodern cliché about the relativity of truth, I think. Rather, he’s asking us to observe the relationship between the story and who is telling it, and to question the motives behind any narrative account.
The most stunning example of this comes late in the film, when Nora discovers a page written by her late father in which he brutally denounces her. When I first saw the film, this totally threw me; I found it shocking and inexplicable. Asked by an interviewer what inspired it, Desplechin responded, in an amusing hyper-referential flurry: “Strindberg, I imagine. Or maybe King Lear, a child’s terror, a bit of a Philip Roth novel, Bergman’s Cries and Whispers…. I also remembered a new edition of Kafka’s Metamorphosis with the father who curses his son.”
Clues or red herrings? I’ll tell you what I think. Knowing of Desplechin’s infatuation with W.B. Yeats (who is hilariously referenced in a scene involving Ismael and his shrink), I went and re-read Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” which links a certain mythological ravishment with the revenge taken on Agamemnon. Suddenly the relationship between Nora and her father turned upside down, and I saw the entire film in a different light. Feel free to disagree with this reading, and to supply your own. But also join me in thanking the cinematic firmament for a filmmaker who so directly implicates the viewer in the mysteries and delights of meaning.