Parallel storylines tell the current state of affairs for two ex-lovers: Nora's a single mother who comes to care for her terminally ill father; holed in up in mental ward, Ismael, a brilliant musician, plots his escape.
The Vuillard family is no stranger to physical/mental illness, loss, and banishment. But when the matriarch becomes in need of a transplant, the whole family is forced to come together, emotional baggage and all, just in time for Christmas.
Based on the true childhood experiences of Noah Baumbach and his brother, The Squid and the Whale tells the touching story of two young boys dealing with their parents' divorce in Brooklyn in the 1980s.
The stories of Nora during a brief period when her father falls ill and of Ismaël while involuntarily committed to a mental institution for observation. Nora's in her 30s and has loved four men - her son Elias, Elias's deceased father, her own father, and Ismaël, a musician given to odd behavior with whom she lived seven years. She will soon marry a businessman. Faced with her father's death, Nora seeks out Ismaël to ask that he reconnect with Elias; a great deal else roils from her past. Ismaël has his own challenges, not the least of which are his feelings toward adopting Elias and his meeting Arielle, another patient. Ismaël's surface shows a lot; Nora's, very little. Written by
Kings & Queen is the first film I've seen from writer/director Arnaud Desplechin, but I can already tell that he is a master director and, perhaps even moreso, a master storyteller. This is a film filled with an ensemble of highly complex, emotional, tragic, comedic, realistic, compelling and human characters. As an outsider into the universe that Desplechin creates these people seem normal in most ways, but what makes them so real is that in each character's head they are the focal point of their universe. Which is an obvious thing to say since that's true about every human being, but it's rarely demonstrated in films. Most films feel like they are their own universe and the characters are just people in that universe, moving along as characters and not necessarily their own personal worlds. That isn't the case here, though, as all of these people maneuver as their own individual universes inside of the overall scope that Desplechin as masterfully created. They aren't just one-note characters; they are their own kings and queens of their world, if you will.
This film focuses on two very different characters going through two very different stories. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) is a woman who is faced with many grueling dilemmas. She is living with a history of loss and pain, and only gets more of this as she learns that her father has bowel cancer and only a few more days to live. Along with this she has to try and manage her son from her first marriage and her upcoming third marriage to a new man who her son doesn't like. There is so much on her plate, yet she always tries to keep her emotions in check and tries to keep a joy in her life. This bleak, emotional melodrama is split with the character of Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric) who is her polar opposite. Ismaël, Nora's second husband, is someone with no harshness in his life. He has a sort of magic around him at all times, no matter what state his life is in. He too is facing hard times. The IRS is attacking him and we are introduced to the character as two men from a psychiatric hospital show up at his doorstep and drag him away to their hospital. This story is filled with immense life and highly absurd comedy, which is a perfect mix for the painful melodrama of Nora's journey.
One of the many geniuses of Kings & Queen is how Desplechin weaves these two different stories together so seamlessly. Not only do the characters feel remarkably real, but they feel as if they belong to the same universe. It's so rare these days to find an ensemble film where everything fits into the same world, instead of these big chunks of different characters that feel as if they are just mashed together from completely separate films but the writer/director tries to put them all together. Films like that always feel bloated and awkward as they transition from one entirely different universe to another. Kings & Queen features two highly unique types of journeys, but the transitions are never awkward and the film is never bloated. Whenever we are watching Nora, in the back of our minds we are still thinking about where Ismaël is on his journey through the film. And likewise, whenever we are watching Ismaël, we are thinking about Nora as well. This is a huge compliment to Desplechin as it is the perfect example for how he puts these people in the same universe, instead of entirely different films.
Devos and Amalric lead a highly impressive ensemble cast through this epic journey of tragedy and comedy. Everyone helps Desplechin in making their characters so rich and alive. You can tell that each actor has put a long history inside of their roles that we only get to see a portion of throughout the course of the film. Mathieu Amalric is an absolute revelation a, and easily the most remarkable of the cast. I wouldn't hesitate to go so far as to say that it's one of the best performances I've ever seen. He is filled with charisma and life, but also with a hint of insanity just below the surface. His Ismaël is an extremely bipolar narcissist who greatly impacts everyone that comes across. I can safely say that I've never seen a performance like it and that he dazzled me for every moment he was on screen. Emmanuelle Devos is almost as impressive, bringing so much emotion to a point just below the surface where you can tell how much everything is affecting the character but she holds it down for most of the film, so that the scenes where she lets that emotion pour out are much more compelling and say a lot more about her character at that time in the story.
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