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Originally published Friday, August 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

As characters' lives twist, we're just along for the ride

Arnaud Desplechin's beautifully acted "Kings and Queen" flips between comedy and tragedy, not always gracefully. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos Devos)...

Seattle Times movie critic

Arnaud Desplechin's beautifully acted "Kings and Queen" flips between comedy and tragedy, not always gracefully.

Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), an elegant Parisian, is coping with her ailing father (Maurice Garrel), rebellious younger sister (Nathalie Boutefeu), wealthy but chilly husband-to-be (Olivier Rabourdin), adored little son (Valentin Lelong) and neurotic ex-husband Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric). Life is weighing heavily on Nora, reflected in the dark circles under her wide, sad eyes.

Meanwhile Ismaël, a viola player and tax avoider, has a rather more slapstick problem. Men in white coats have turned up at his door and taken him off to a psychiatric institution, despite his protestations that he's sane. This potentially terrifying situation could have been played seriously but is instead depicted with a bit of a wink. (One of the white-coated men — who, in one of several nods to Shakespeare, turns out to be named Prospero — can't stop grinning.)

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"Kings and Queen," with Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Valentin Lelong, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Maurice Garrel, Nathalie Boutefeu, Catherine Deneuve. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin, from a screenplay by Desplechin and Roger Bohbot. 150 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. In French with English subtitles. Varsity, through Thursday.

And that's how "Kings and Queen" toys with its audience throughout its leisurely running time: Just when you think you've got its tone figured out, off it goes in another direction. Nora's relationship with her father, in particular, takes an unpredictable turn, and we have to rethink everything that came before. There's a looseness to the camera work and storytelling that's appealingly breezy: This film feels, for better or worse, like real life.

Desplechin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Roger Bohbot, weaves into the film several references to mythology (specifically, the tale of Leda and the swan: a woman seduced by a man in disguised form) and literature, though it's not always clear what purpose the reference is serving, and sometimes it just feels like literary name-dropping.

"Kings and Queen" begins and ends with the melancholy strains of "Moon River" — classicism, in movie language — and it seduces us, like the swan. But this isn't "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and Desplechin knows it; he's toying with expectations, taking us someplace unexpected.

By the end, as a calm Nora finally finds peace, "Kings and Queen" has completed its journey, uneven, and yet compelling, tracing the circles of its characters' lives. There's a gentle scene between a boy and a man who is not his father. And then "Moon River" starts again — the movie is ended, but you suspect that these lives go on.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725


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