The script for Arnaud Desplechin's sprawling Kings And Queen must look something like a David Foster Wallace novel, packed with footnotes and allusions, spontaneous flashbacks and non sequiturs, and long monologues that stretch out like page-long sentences. As the title of his three-hour signature work My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into An Argument suggests, Desplechin isn't afraid of a little long-windedness, because life isn't always tidy enough to squeeze into the expected narrative boxes. Even so, his new film feels like an overflowing repository of ideas, a by-parts exhilarating and baffling mélange of melodrama and comedy that can leap from Greek mythology to rap music in a finger-snap. It's easy to get drunk on the film's go-for-broke spirit, which recalls the zestiest work of the French New Wave in its wild, discursive breaks from convention. But the sum of Kings And Queen proves more difficult to measure: At the end of the day, what is this movie really about, anyway?
Structured like a mini-novel in two long chapters and an epilogue, Kings And Queen follows two former lovers along parallel tracks until circumstances bring their unkempt lives together again. In a meaty, free-ranging performance, Emmanuelle Devos plays a twice-divorced single mother of 35 who works at a Paris art gallery and carries on a loveless relationship with a wealthy man who offers comfort and stability. Meanwhile, her manic ex Mathieu Amalric, a quartet violinist, gets mistakenly committed to a psychiatric hospital, where his erratic behavior seems to ensure an even longer stay than necessary. During a visit with her father, a highly respected writer putting the finishing touches on a memoir, Devos discovers that he's had cancer long enough for it to metastasize, which causes her to fret for her young son's future. Her desperation leads her back to Amalric, whom she hopes will adopt the boy, but his unstable temperament makes him a questionable candidate for the job.
It all sounds like a standard, even drippy, treatment of familial relations, but Desplechin keeps yanking out the rug, especially whenever the film drifts anywhere close to sentiment. Premises like the one in Kings And Queen usually lead flawed characters to call on inner reserves of strength, but Devos and Amalric only reveal deeper shortcomings, which makes them more touching and human. Yet Desplechin's wildly discursive style calls so much attention to itself that even his heroes are overwhelmed by the aesthetic gamesmanship, left to flounder as the director skips from Leda And The Swan to breakdancing to a Hong Kong-style action sequence at a convenience store. Though frequently dazzling, Kings And Queen proves that a bunch of punchy singles don't necessarily make an album.