Of kings and paupers

DFT opens the season with two top offerings

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Craftily plotted and filmed in a jittery style, writer-director Arnaud Desplechin’s latest work tries to overwhelm you with its audacity — and, for the most part, succeeds. The film is a comic melodrama, a clever soap opera crammed with character detail and plot twists, a thick slice of life spread over an event-filled two-and-a-half hours.

When we meet Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), she’s a woman on the verge of middle age who has weathered two unfortunate marriages. Her first husband died in an accident, leaving her pregnant with a son, and the second was too self-absorbed for things to work. She’s about to embark on a third marriage with a rich, undemanding older man who can give her the peaceful life she seems to have earned. Then she’s called away to attend to her dying father, one last travail before she can finally settle down to happiness. But nothing is as it seems: The true nature of the first husband’s accident, her father’s feelings toward her and her unsavory inner life have yet to be revealed.

Nora keeps in touch with her second husband, Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), who’s adored by her son from the first marriage. When we meet him, he’s being carted off to a mental institution. Ismaël’s a mess, a musician (he plays viola in a string quartet) who’s haunted by paranoia, delusions of grandeur and a loose grip on reality. He’s also a nonstop and articulate bullshitter, but has an analytical impulse that overreaches his ability to understand things. Our first impression is that he’s a bit of an asshole, and it takes quite a lot of plot maneuvering before we begin to see the humanity beneath his in-your-face facade.

Desplechin and co-writer Roger Bohbot cleverly mesh Nora and Ismaël’s stories and keep the revelations coming; even Ismaël’s father, who at first seems like a placid bourgeois archetype, turns out to have surprising qualities. And while the film may seem more heated than insightful, it’s never less than engrossing in its determinedly sloppy way.

 

In French with English subtitles. The Detroit Film Theatre inside the DIA (5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237). 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 2 and 3; 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 4.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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