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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Ménage à Cinq
by Donald Levit

With some reservations, others generally enjoyed Kings & Queen/Rois et reine, so this minority opinion goes out on a shaky negative limb. Though admirable in parts, at fifteen minutes over director/co-scripter Arnaud Desplechin’s “a woman’s destiny in an hour and five minutes, another hour for the labors of Hercules, and ten minutes to save a child,”  this film goes off in myriad directions, consciously mixing “burlesque farce . . . melodrama . . . dark fairy tale . . . Shakespearean comedy,” myth and the novel.

Dickensian, filmmakers today have difficulty editing out excrescent footage, especially when self-censorship involves material good in itself but unnecessary. Here, for instance, the not uninteresting half-hour involving the hero’s sexual/non-sexual dalliance with suicidal fellow asylum patient Arielle “China Girl” Phénix (Magali Woch), for whom he steals pills and to whom he absurdly proposes; or the inconsistent, awkwardly inserted postmortem revelations of the heroine’s father, Louis Jenssens (Maurice Garrel); or the several short appearances of her addict sister Chloé (Nathalie Boutefeu). Every minute adds up, along with an excess of flashbacks and direct voice-over soliloquies which fill in but should have been worked around.

This month, the forty-four-year-old director is the subject of a complete, six-film American retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinématek and Wexner Center of Ohio State University. Triggered by death or death-in-life, his stories are sprawling epics of unfiltered embrace, therein lying both their emotional attractiveness and their failure in terms of rational order. Like his previous five, in two titled Parts and Epilogue this one is difficult to get a precise handle on, and will either engross or, for those who seek tighter definition, exasperate.

At thirty-five, Nora “Cotterelle” (Emmanuelle Devos) has “a pleasant job” running her Paris art gallery, where she selects a Leda and the Swan engraving from a Roman dig as a birthday gift for father. Retired in Grenoble and writing his memoirs, he had taught Greek mythology at the university there -- myth appears throughout, in largely Renaissance artwork -- and is caring for the daughter’s “my whole life” ten-year-old son, Elias (Valentin Lelong), for the summer.

Press material has the single mother twice married and divorced, but this is not strictly accurate. The boy’s father puts in an appearance as a simpering dream-ghost but in life had been a spoiled pub poet with whom she lived and quarreled and, with her pregnant, had died in a covered-up, presumably self-inflicted accident while making a Byronic gesture. Her lengthy efforts to legalize the dead Pierre Cotterelle’s (Joachim Salinger) paternity and surname for the son have been fruitless.

Her next “more affaire than commitment” was with neurotic chamber-quartet violist Ismaël Vuillard (Mathhieu Amalric), whom Elias idolized but with whom life and marriage were unthinkable. For the past year she has dated, and is now coldly to marry, wealthy Jean-Jacques (Olivier Radourdin), a bland success who adores her, “is not keen on” sex, and has negative rapport with her child.

Scared and hoping to correct galleys of his Knight Alone, father has endured pain, but his self-diagnosed ulcer is inoperable bowel cancer. Shriveled to eighty pounds, he survives on morphine. Desperate, she turns to Ismaël for support (and also to adopt Elias), but, obscene, soulfully erratic, with a hangman’s noose over a living-room chair and seven-hundred-thousand francs in bounced cheques and the tax people out for his blood, he has been forced “by judicial error” into a mental institution at the request of a third party, possibly his own sister Elizabeth (Noémie Lvovsky). His “enthusiastic” Subutex-addicted, comic attorney Mamanne (Hippolyte Girardot) manages his discharge through psychoanalyst Mme. Vasset (Catherine Deneuve), but Ismaël finds his quartet and viola usurped, returns to family inheritance squabbles in Roubaix (Desplechin’s birthplace) and must decide about Elias. At the same time, Nora will unearth unpleasant truths about herself and have her own choices to make.

The story falls together, a minor miracle given the tens of thousands of frames that should never have gotten out of a cutting room, the irrelevant suggestions all over, jarring inclusions such as a “Moon River” opening-closing score, and Nora’s voice-overs. “I’ve loved four men and killed two,” she says, and her plural Kings & Queen has the makings of two decent movies but is helter-skelter overstuffed for one. 

(Released by Wellspring; not rated by MPAA.)

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