No matter what the critics say, film festival juries frequently appear to be in their own little bubble where they award the top prize to the film with the most political relevance, instead of the best artistic qualities. Last year at Cannes, the middling immigrant drama Dheepan trumped some of the year’s most widely acclaimed movies, from Son of Saul to Carol, for the festival’s top prize.
But this was far from the only area critics were left bemused, as Rooney Mara’s performance in Carol suffered the indignity of sharing the Best Actress award with the unhyped Emmanuelle Bercot in My King. Mara’s performance of startling subtlety drew immediate praise, whereas the melodramatic, larger than life performance by Bercot seemed like a reward for most acting, rather than best acting.
To view this performance as an awards winner, as the marketing wants you to, is incredibly detrimental to the movie itself. This isn’t an awards worthy performance by any means, but its brand of hyperactive melodrama perfectly suits this charmingly unfashionable movie.
Exaggerated performances dominate an autobiographical tale
My King is directed by actress-turned-filmmaker Maïwenn. Her previous film was the gritty, semi-improvised Polisse, about the Parisian Child Protection Unit, co-written with Emmanuelle Bercot. Here, Bercot is elevated to the leading role in a years-spanning romantic melodrama – but the improvisational grittiness is still on display, despite the dramatic shift in genre.
This tone is likely why many critics were left unimpressed with the movie and its conflict between quirky romance (like something you’d see in an archetypal “Sundance movie”) and realist themes of disability, depression and spousal abuse. It manages to be a breezy feel-good watch one minute and a harrowing one seconds later. Yet like the melodramas it is clearly trying to update, it is tightly directed and controlled, with all these polar opposite emotions fitting in perfectly together.
The main flaw is that the film does suffer from a case of “irrelevant framing device”, as Tony (Bercot) looks back upon her past marriage with Georgio (Vincent Cassel) whilst recovering from a skiing injury years after the divorce.
In this framing device, she never verbally mentions her relationship and the focus is entirely on her befriending a racially diverse group of young adults who, in that dreaded Sundance movie style, give her some new perspective on life. If the film is never as strong as it needs to be, it is because these irrelevant sequences drain it of momentum frequently, filling dead air with bad improv instead.
Luckily, the central narrative is emotionally engaging. When Tony and Georgio first meet, they remember they’ve met before and hit it off straight away. Georgio is a charming restaurant owner, whose bubbly personality and relentless sense of humour instantly recall Roberto Benigni’s well defined comic persona in Life is Beautiful. He is also, in classic melodramatic form, a romantic lead with serious personality issues.
At first, his flaws of personality are seen as offbeat and hilarious, such as interrupting sex to do the washing up, but it isn’t long before the curtain is pulled back and a lifetime of drink and drug abuse is revealed that paints his quirkiness in a new light.
Combined with a newborn son and a suicidal ex girlfriend who is still dependant on him, the relationship naturally takes a big strain. Cassel goes from channelling Benigni to his own hate-filled character from Irreversible at the drop of a hat.
A movie of compelling contradictions
My King is a passion project for the director due to its semi autobiographical nature, yet the movie doesn’t feel like it has any bearings on reality, despite realist elements and frequent improvisational dialogue. This isn’t a bad thing.
The melodramatic tone ensures it is far easier to stomach the cliche of a woman screaming in pouring rain, or the sight of a lawyer ignoring her case to make a speech about the nature of love. It also likely acts as a distancing technique between the real emotion the director went through, with the artifice of the genre.
Here, we are welcomed into a world of stereotypical romantic fantasy, where cliches are as likely to be embraced as they are upturned.
At first glance, there are plenty of reasons to be confused with the characterisation of Georgio; he is likeable one minute and utterly loathsome the next. Viewed as a flashback to various memories of a relationship, rather than a concrete narrative, then this decision makes complete sense. It is also another reason why many have taken against the film.
The autobiographical nature means the movie is supposed to be seen through Tony’s eyes, so like her, we love him one minute and want him to just leave us alone the next. In the space of one sequence, they are hurling verbal abuse at each other in the rain, to having a post divorce shag. Looking back on the relationship rather than living it in the moment means that the highs and lows feel equal.
This is a very sex positive film, that understands human beings can still be intimate with each other without the emotional intimacy that often comes hand in hand. The first 15 minutes continue a very detailed post-coital conversation about Tony’s “pussy”, whilst the latter half of the film is committed to depicting accurately the sex life of a parent.
In cinema, we only see the sex lives of the young and the attractive. Here, there are frank discussions of sexuality that feel real, despite being in the middle of melodramatic artifice.
If you acclimatise to its unique blend of melodrama and realism, then My King is an arresting watch throughout, with plenty of reasons to recommend.
It may often be highly reminiscent of Xavier Dolan, due to this gritty melodramatic feel, as well as director Jacques Audiard’s 2012 romantic disability drama Rust and Bone, but the autobiographical elements ensure it stands on its own two feet. It isn’t for everybody- but it has an emotional impact designed to leave you reeling, one way or another.
Can the melodrama survive in the modern age? Is My King a worthy addition to the genre canon?
My King is released in select US theatres from Friday August 12. It is already available in the UK on Blu-Ray and DVD. All international release dates are right here.
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