Friday, August 11, 2006

2005 in review: #2

2. Kings and Queen (Arnaud Deplechin)

B-side: Gilles’ Wife (Frederic Fonteyne)

Eighteen months ago, Emmanuelle Devos was just another talented French actress to me. Having seen her in READ MY LIPS and ESTHER KAHN had brought her to my attention, but hadn’t really made that much of an impression on me. However, in the intervening year and a half, all that has changed- in my opinion, she has risen to the highest echelon of contemporary actors (who she joins there is a subject for another time). The lion’s share of the credit for my finally recognizing her searing talent goes to these two films, in which she gave two of 2005’s very best performances.

Not coincidentally, I also fell in love with the films of Arnaud Desplechin this past year when I caught a retrospective of his work at the Wexner Center. And having seen them all, I can proclaim without hesitation that KINGS AND QUEEN is his best work to date. It’s certainly his most ambitious, juxtaposing a family melodrama with crazed comedy in a way that results in hairpin emotional turns. Some may be put off by the film’s tonal inconsistencies, but I believe there be method to Desplechin’s madness, as he explores how the stories the film tells affect the characters who inhabit them. Devos is a revelation as Nora, a sensible mother whose thoughts turn to her own mortality after he father falls terminally ill, and Matthieu Amalric (also seen in MUNICH) is just as good as her second ex-husband Ismael, an irresponsible musician who gets committed to a mental institution. In a time when most movies have become all-too-predictable, here’s one that’s capable of darn near anything, narratively-speaking, which is an achievement in itself. That it accomplishes this with such style and emotional gravity is cause for rejoicing.

If Devos is the star attraction in KINGS AND QUEEN, she’s almost the entire show in GILLES’ WIFE. That the film is entitled GILLES’ WIFE rather than ELISA is accurate, as Elisa is the very model of a devoted housewife. Indeed, her duties as a wife and mother appear to be her only joy in life, and even when Gilles cheats on her (with her own sister no less) she stays with him because she knows no other way. In today’s world Elisa would be seen as a fool, but the film, set in the 1920s, doesn’t see it that way- she’s simply doing what she’s been told is expected of her as a woman, and Devos plays up her dignity and steadfastness, even when Elisa is spying on her sister on Gilles’ behalf. In GILLES’ WIFE, Devos gives a performance worthy of the greatest silent-film actors, conveying vast reserves of emotion with her unique facial features. In Hollywood terms, Devos isn’t conventionally attractive, but it’s her acting gifts and, yes, her singular brand of beauty that will allow her to endure long after today’s marquee babes have faded away.

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