A King In His Domain

in 42nd Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Gabe Klinger

As the auspicious lead in Arnaud Desplechin’s Comment je dispute… (Ma vie sexuelle), Mathieu Amalric found a role relevant to his own generation. Ten years later, him and Desplechin are still in sync with one another’s sensibilities, and have turned Amalric’s role into a more comical, though more problematic and regressive, character in his latest, Kings and Queen (Rois et reine).

When Desplechin approached Amalric about the role he said to think of Chaplin and the Big Lebowski. “My character has nothing to do with real-life. He traverses one situation to the next in the way Chaplin does,” Amalric said to me over coffee at the Hotel Intercontinental in Vienna. He cites one scene in particular when he accidentally injures a nurse. The son of a store-owner who came to Paris to become a violinist, his character, Ismael, has recently become a closet-case prone to sabotaging all aspects of his life.

The film has two slowly intertwining storylines: the first, about Nora (Emanuelle Devos), and the second, Ismael (Amalric), who were married at some point. Nora’s story starts tragically when she learns that her father is stricken with cancer. Ismael, now living a completely separate life, is teetering on insanity, and his story begins with a deranged voicemail greeting, in which he angrily warns off tax collectors. Desplechin sets the platform here for Amalric to flex his comedic muscles, which he does, without missing a beat, a few seconds later, when a couple of nurses from the state mental institution show up at his doorstep.

“Can I help you?” he deadpans. “You’re not here to take me, because you’re crazy if you think I’m coming with you.” One of the nurses looks into his apartment and sees a noose. Ismael tells them it’s just for assurance.

Amalric’s character is fearful and shy in the way he paces around, but his speech is confident. Ismael can be endearing, even when pissing someone off, if only because in his eyes we can see a gleeful acknowledgment of the absurdity of the situation. As Amalric plainly attests, “Ismael loves life.”

Amalric is in the habit of talking about Darwin lately, which is appropriate for an actor who has shifted his career from acting to directing and screenwriting, and to stage acting. Back in Paris, he’s preparing for a Darwinian production, the script for which he pulls out of an overstuffed backpack. He intuitively gestures: “It’s about the body…” bringing his hand down to the center of his chest “…et voilà”. It’s the first time he’s doing theater, and he plods a bit nervously as he announces this. Then he returns assured – a sheer force of gravity planting him in one place, though the world waits, like in one of his triumphant moments in the role that began his collaboration with Desplechin as a lead.

In Comment je dispute… he played frustrated philosophy grad Paul Dedalus. The character was 29, and the years between the films show: the character in Kings and Queen is rife with middle-age complications. Later in the film he has the chance to become a father — “I’m not sure he will be a great father,” Amalric says, underlining the film’s warm-heartedness towards the character.

Ismael has the chance to redeem his obnoxious self-effacement later in the film when he meets a volatile girl who feels comforted by his craziness. Amalric says, “The character knows what he wants, and sleeps around with the nurses, but he’s still learning how to be introspective.”

Amalric himself continues to surprise, and the changes are graceful, even if he always picks characters who have no clear resolve. The result is an actor who gives all of his roles continuity — a rare treat for audiences.

Gabe Klinger