The Folds of Life: On Arnaud Desplechin's "Kings and Queen"
At first, things some more or less straight forward—a melodrama, of a sort. But as the film goes, we come to realize that neither it nor human being itself is either straight or forward. I want to say that both film and human being are organized not around linear progression, not around cause and effect, but in and through the fold.
There really is no plot. Many things happen—institutionalization, suicides successful and not, revelations too bizarre to discuss. But these serve less to propel the film than to illuminate folds in characters. And as these people are pleated this way and that—or, rather, as their pleats come to pass—the film itself pleats and folds in time as past, present, and future find themselves juxtaposed as if in some kind of origami structure that will never be the structure of anything other than the film.
Why folds? The fold is a figure that allows for simultaneous continuity and discontinuity. Consider a piece of paper that has been folded at different angles and pressures. The paper has not been torn but now houses profound internal differences. It is therefore continuous—the same piece of paper—and discontinuous as each crease introduces a whole new posture, direction, and shape.
The characters in "Rois et reine"—"Kings and Queen"—are folded. We are moving along with first this character, Nora, and then with that, Ismael. Things seem to be banal enough, even if visually and dramatically engaging. And then things start to shift as characters fold—they remain continuous but quite different postures, attitudes, modes reveal themselves. And it is not because these people are mad. The film does explore that possibility but those we see who are clearly mad are precisely those who seem to lack folds, who are monolithic in their madness (such as Arielle, the would-be suicide).
No, these characters are not mad. Nor are they products of a surrealist inclination by the filmmaker. This is not the discontinuity of William Burroughs; this is not the cut up that introduces radically discrepant threads to see what will come. Desplechin engages an entirely different tactic: the fold. As the film moves, we discover, we confront, the great complex pleating of Nora and Ismael (everyone else remains more or less univocal—which is lucky, because the complexity and intensity of just these two is overwhelming).
Neither character can be summed up. Neither can be said to have this and that side to them, as if the complexity of character were always the ambivalence of moral/immoral. Desplechin's fold is not the fold of dichotomy. The fold has no purpose, no goal, no destination. This is not origami that will end in a crane. This is the impossibly complex pleating of humanity when it is free of reduction, free of the simplification that humanism and Hollywood would have us believe constitutes this life.
For Desplechin, to be human is neither surreal nor simple. It is to be at once continuous—you are, necessarily, everything you do, think, feel—and discontinuous precisely because you ARE everything you do, think, and feel. There are no deviations from ourselves. In everything we do, in everything we say and feel and think, we create ourselves. Each of these is a fold of our becoming.
What makes it even more complex is that we are not alone, not solipsistic creatures who adjust our beings in solitude. We are folded as much as we fold—by our children, our lovers, our parents, our culture. But the manner in which we can be folded is who we are.
And so this film, "Kings and Queen": a great cinemantic folding that never jumps but that is nonetheless discontinuous, at once jointed and disjointed. In rhetorical terms, Desplechin deploys metonymy—there are no metaphors, no leaps and bounds, no surrealism and no symbolism (surrealism and symbolism are closely related via metaphor's jump cut). Scenes tend to be short and, even when longer, the takes are short. Each shot is a moment, a piece, of this or that character, a metonymy of this or that person. There is never, ever, synecdcohe—we are never allowed to have this fragment stand in for the whole of the person—because there is no whole of the person per se! All there are are folds, a great unwieldiness that is somehow, nonetheless, and more or less, discrete. We can still say, "This is Nora, that is Ismael." But now ask me to tell you what either is like and you will find me showing you the film in its entirety because they are all these looks, words, desires, ideas—not necessarily at once but, yes, at once.
And there is certainly never any irony, no play of surface and depth, no negation. This film is all profusion, fecundity, giving us the baroque nature of human being—folds and folds, perhaps not to infinity but certainly unto death.
Desplechin is an odd and refreshing filmmaker who, like Cassavetes, delivers sentiment without sentimentality, pathos without bathos. And yet his films are really nothing like Cassavetes' as Cassavetes priveleges the immediacy of the event, the surprise and speed and sometimes severe angles of the undulating now. Sure, it's a now that undulates with past and present but his films like to spotlight the urgency of the now. Not Desplechin: he deploys the fold and all of its temporal wackiness. Watching "Kings an Queen," we feel the presence of the past and all the doubt, uncertainty, and anxiety of the future. We literally see them folded into the now.
This makes for a radically different speed and affect of the film, for a different distribution of urgency. Desplechin's films are certainly intense but I want to say that this intensity is distributed differently. Watching "Faces" or "Love Streams" or "Woman Under the Influence," my heart and body are pounding: I'm right on the edge along with Gena. Watching "Kings and Queen" and "Esther Kahn," I am less on edge than I am taken by the edge and folded. To watch these films, then, is not just to see and experience the fold. It is to be folded.