The ballad of the filmmaker and his onscreen muse (and often off-screen lover) has been sung in all the world’s major languages, but it seems particularly apt en français. Roughly 40 years after it ended, the relationship between Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina remains illuminating—as well as exemplary. Perhaps the echoes of Godard/Karina in the three-film collaboration of veteran director Benoît Jacquot and lush young star Isild Le Besco explain why A Tout de Suite has been widely compared to Breathless, Godard’s pre-Karina debut. Whatever happened off-camera, though, Jacquot and Le Besco’s anti-romp is simplicity itself next to Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen, a brash and bountiful postbreakup saga that also happens to involve a hell of a backstory.
One of the many impressive younger French directors whose work is little-known in the United States, Desplechin likes to shuffle drama with farce, classicism with immediacy, and fact with fantasy. Although all of his features have been screened locally, Kings and Queen is only the second to get a commercial booking, following 1996’s equally sweeping My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument. As in that film, two central characters are played by Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric: She’s Nora, a Paris gallery manager who faces a series of crises, whose musical theme is “Moon River.” He’s her ex-husband Ismaël, an extravagantly self-dramatizing viola player whose own musical moment features Webern. (Also on the soundtrack are such post– New Wave oddities as Devine & Statton, Terry Hall & Mushtaq, and the Style Council.)
Co-scripted by the director and Roger Bohbot, the 150-minute film opens with a reference to the classical myth of Leda and Zeus, and it’s soon revealed that Nora’s father (Maurice Garrel) is a professor of ancient Greek in Grenoble. He’s one of the kings, along with Ismaël and the 10-year-old Elias (Valentin Lelong), Nora’s son by a man who died before the boy was born. There’s also Claude (Geoffrey Carey), the wealthy businessman whom Nora expects, without much enthusiasm, to take as her third husband. Claude and Elias have no rapport, however, so when Nora learns that her father is dying of cancer, she hopes Ismaël will take her son, who’s been staying with Grandad. Ismaël can’t be reached, but not because he’s ducking Nora: In one of the film’s first scenes, he’s been involuntarily committed to an asylum.
Thus both Nora and Ismaël spend much of their individual movies in hospitals. Their two stories contrast as much as they interlock: Nora is first convulsed with grief and then, in one of the film’s twinned emotional upsets, stunned by a judgment she could never have guessed. It’s a role that gives Devos a whole career of sentiments in a single film. Though Ismaël will experience a similar psychic wallop, his hospital sojourn is more comic. The manic-depressive violist romances a suicidal adolescent (Magali Woch), raids the drug cabinet for his wacky lawyer (Hippolyte Girardot), and duels with the clinic’s icily officious warden (Catherine Deneuve, whose presence is the film’s most distracting alienation effect). Ismaël is self-amused and casually—if perhaps not seriously—misogynist, and he would surely be less entertaining if he weren’t being played by one of France’s most engaging contemporary actors. But the mood-swung musician reveals more wisdom and kindness as the story unfolds, even while Nora’s aura of respectability decays.
If that makes the opposition of Nora and Ismaël seem schematic—well, it is, but Kings and Queen sure isn’t. The experience of watching this elaborate yet insouciant movie isn’t just dryly toting up its themes, references, and linkages. Eric Gautier’s handheld camera whips through each scene as if it were in a combat zone, and Laurence Briaud’s editing alternately fragments and unites the narrative. Flashbacks, dream sequences, minor supporting characters, and allusions to art and literature arrive disorientingly, yet ultimately make sense. If the storytelling style is oblique, it’s also comprehensive, and Desplechin never gives the impression that he’s only spinning the tale so wildly because he doesn’t understand it himself.
In fact, Kings and Queen is in part derived from a true story: the travails of the director’s ex-girlfriend, actress Marianne Denicourt (who also appeared in My Sex Life). She was so unhappy with his use of her life that she retaliated with a short novel, Mauvais Genie (“Evil Genius”), whose disreputable protagonist is a film director named Arnold Duplancher. Desplechin’s use of Denicourt’s biographical details does seem to violate the standards of reputable-ex-boyfriend behavior, but his movie transcends its origins—and is indisputably his own. That Desplechin retains control of the proceedings while they lurch in a half-dozen unexpected directions is just one of the marvels of a film that manages to be poignant and mocking, epic and intimate, personal and detached, all in exhilarating overdrive.
A Tout de Suite also has its origins in actual events, although less controversially. Writer-director Jacquot adapted it from Elisabeth Fanger’s memoir When I Was 19, a tale of a willful adolescent’s awfully perverse adventure. It’s 1975, and bourgeois art student Lili (Le Besco) lives with her father and older sister in a large apartment in western Paris. Lili sketches constantly—which is apt, given that Jacquot and cinematographer Caroline Champetier (who’s also shot films by Desplechin and Godard) capture her in quick renderings: handheld, quick-cut, black-and-white vignettes that travel from Lili’s bedroom to infamy in a matter of minutes.
One day, Lili flees from a former lover in whom she has lost all interest. Joined by her best friend, she takes refuge in a bar, where the two women are treated to sandwiches and champagne by a man who says, dubiously, that he’s in real estate. Later, they go to a club to see the guy again, and Lili falls for his friend Bada (Ouassini Embarek), a French-Moroccan youth whose sensual, rather blank visage is the dark counterpart to Lili’s fair one. (He’s also from the “pit” of Belleville, the cultural and geographic antithesis of Lili’s neighborhood.) They sleep together a few times, an activity conveyed with simple gestures (Lili matter-of-factly pulls down her pants) and a recurring motif (a sliver of Tangerine Dream). Then Bada calls Lili to say that he’s in the midst of bank robbery that’s gone bloodily wrong. She hides him at her place and soon joins him, his accomplice, and the latter’s girlfriend as they escape to Spain, Morocco, and Greece.
When asked by Bada if she wants to go with him, Lili simply says, “Yes”—and that level of discussion continues until the two finally part. A Tout de Suite (“Right Now”) mirrors its protagonist’s lack of interest in analysis and second-guessing. It’s a hymn to motion, instinct, and, of course, Le Besco, a lanky yet soft-bodied beauty with a conspicuous overbite. Her utter naturalness in front of the camera is an essential part of the movie’s charm. Although Lili ultimately tries to puzzle out what’s happened, the film lives through her openness to any new experience as she embarks on a purely sensory and utterly amoral grand tour of the world beyond Daddy’s house.
A Tout de Suite is so easygoing—and so beautiful—that its many exclusions hardly register. Except for a poster on the wall toward the end of the film, there’s hardly a hint of politics—an odd lacuna in a tale of underclass European bank robbers in the red ’70s. But then, there’s really nothing here but Lili’s physicality and ingenuousness. Before undertaking a series of costume dramas—including 2000’s Sade, the first movie he made with Le Besco—Jacquot used to specialize in simple tales of solitary young women, notably 1995’s A Single Girl. But whereas that movie’s heroine took control of her life in 90 minutes, Lili never does. Her rebellious escapade turns out to be an exercise in passivity.
That’s one reason why A Tout de Suite is not much like Breathless: Godard’s characters are seldom so docile. The central distinction, however, is the absence of authorial consciousness. Even before they became explicitly political, Godard’s films were always crammed with references to books, music, art, and other movies. His characters—even when played by his muses—are canvases onto which he can project not only quotations but also his own observations. A Tout a Suite is different: Presented with the opportunity to go on the run with Lili, Jacquot simply says, “Yes.”CP