Monday, June 26, 2006

Brutally Comic, Brutally Tragic: Kings & Queen and the End of the Reps

Toronto is about to undergo a cultural lobotomy at the end of the week. Four of the five theatres in the Festival Cinemas repertory theatre chain will close this Friday (June 30th), including the Revue, which has been open since the 1910s, and the Royal, an art-deco-tinged jewel, where I once had the privilege to show my feature-length tribute to late night commercials, Infomercial Night. These theatres were home to more than just second-run movies - they were used by smaller film festivals and such beloved institutions as my friend Colin's Kung Fu Fridays screening series. It just got a little harder for a cineaste to labour for love in this town.

I know it's partly my fault that these places where I spent years of my life getting my film-going education are closing shop - I don't go very often anymore. DVDs have kind of ruined going to the movies for me. And the window between a film's theatrical release and its DVD debut is down to about four months in most cases, so people tend to go rent the disc when it comes out instead of seeing them second-run. I remember a couple of years ago when the two Kill Bill films finally played as a double-bill, at the Royal - I had assumed there were lots of film nerds like me who had held off seeing them, waiting for the opportunity to see them both together in the theatre, in one evening, so I arrived early expecting a line-up around the block...there were about 50 people there in total. I should have known then that the end of the reps was near, and now here it is.

The same night the reps are mostly closing, Cinematheque Ontario will be showing one of the bona fide masterpieces of this era, Arnaud Desplechin's Rois et Reine (Kings & Queen) from 2004, which once upon a time would have been an art-house staple, but in this day and age went straight to video except for the major US markets. Not even an unexpected placing right behind A History of Violence in the Village Voice's 2005 critics poll stirred up much interest in it - it played at TIFF in 2004 but is only now popping into a theatre in Toronto for a couple of nights. Better than nothing, I guess.

Desplechin made a film in the mid nineties called Comment Je Me Suis Dispute...(ma vie sexuelle) which was a three hour film about a young French intellectual's chaotic love life and stalled academic career which I loved loved loved to pieces. I took an aisle seat when I went to see it at the festival in 1996 in case I couldn't take it and had to bolt but quite the contrary - it was one of the few movies I've seen that I didn't want to end. And I thought it was just me who felt this way, because of the few people I know who did see it, most bolted. Desplechin's newest film didn't knock me off my feet to the same extent, but it haunted me ever since and seeing it again once it eventually showed up on video sealed the deal.

When Desplechin was putting the film together, he pinned to the wall a maxim of filmmaking that motivated Francois Truffaut - "One minute: four ideas". Desplechin's films are jammed full of detail and ideas and life - tons of tiny yet fleshed-out roles for actors, allusions to art, literature, psychoanalysis, myth, and different film genres and music - Kings & Queen's soundtrack ranges from classical to klezmer to hip-hop to Randy Newman and Henry Mancini - almost too much detail for an audience to take in on first viewing. Kings & Queen is basically two movies in one - a tragic storyline that evokes the "women's pictures" of the forties and fifties, steeped in melodrama and dilemma, and a burlesque, slapstick storyline involving a musician's descent into madness, that are somehow, in Desplechin's hands, made to co-exist. Emmanuelle Devos plays the woman, and one of my favourite actors of today, Mathieu Amalric (he was the lead in Comment Je Me Suis Dispute... and the dandyish French informant in Munich), plays the man. There are emotional moments in this film that I recognize from life but didn't think could be captured in movies. There are two monologues of unadulterated candour late in the picture, one shocking in its cruelty, the other stunning in its generosity, which floored me.

If you're in town, see it now, because it's not going to the reps.

UPDATE: Not only is Kings & Queen getting a first-run release in Toronto after all (it opens at the Carlton July 7th), but also it seems the Royal Cinema will survive in some way, shape or's being turned into a post-production facility by day and movie theatre by will be closed for renovations this summer, though. (June 29th - JH)

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