A French film that depicts in detail the development and decay of a relationship between a man and a woman sounds like an exercise in over-familiarity. And in fact, viewers of this movie by Mawenn (who uses only her first name), an actress who became an acclaimed director, are likely to feel that they’ve been here before. The film’s structure – a frame story with flashbacks – also seems predictable. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the relationship between the two protagonists, and between them and the other characters, is so precise, and the cast does such fine work, that we are able to shrug off the sense of déjà-vu and be swept up by the events on the screen.
Mawenn has already shown her adeptness at shaping a human, social and cultural environment. That ability was apparent in her previous picture, “Polisse,” about a female journalist covering the work of police officers who deal with juvenile delinquents. It is equally manifest in “Mon Roi” (“My King”) in which the director shifts her gaze from the margins of society to the bourgeois center.
The film opens in a rehabilitation clinic where Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot), a lawyer by profession, is recovering after a serious skiing accident. Prodded by one of the counselors, Tony starts to think that possibly the accident was deliberate on her part. To try to reach a conclusion – she has already endured mental crises in the past – Tony starts to examine (enter the flashbacks) her long relationship with Georgio (Vincent Cassel), a charismatic restaurateur whom she met in a club. She surrendered immediately to his charms, despite the warnings of Solal (Louis Garrel), her younger brother, who was present at that first meeting. Solal believes that Georgio’s charm conceals weaknesses and emotional flaws. However, Tony marries him and the couple has a child, but the marriage deteriorates under the pressure of Georgio’s need to control his wife.
One of the strains that affect their relationship is due to the continuing ties between Georgio and Agnes (Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin), a model who was his former girlfriend and who tries to commit suicide when she discovers that Georgio’s relationship with Tony is serious. Tony demands that Georgio stop responding to Agnes’ emotional blackmail. He promises, but doesn’t keep his word. Claiming that for the good of the marriage he should move into his own apartment, he proceeds to rent a flat opposite Tony’s.
One of the film’s virtues is that, although Tony’s love for Georgio seems total, she is also strong and judicious enough to know when to put an end to the marriage. But Mawenn doesn’t ignore the psychological wounds she suffers at his hands. The two go through periods of conciliation and separation, but when Tony discovers that Georgio is continuing to meet with Agnes, is hiding his economic problems from her and has become addicted to drugs, the movie moves into its next part: the divorce. Here, too, the proceedings are not depicted unequivocally, the director shifting between threats – at one stage Georgio demands full custody of their son, claiming that Tony is too unstable to be a good mother – and readiness for mediation attempts.
No perfect people
Tony, then, is not a one-dimensional character, but neither is Georgio: he is not a devious seducer, but a man who is also psychically hurt. This complexity in the fashioning of the two protagonists lends the picture heft as a portrait of a relationship between a man and a woman that stood no chance from the beginning. The film is also enriched through its depiction of the bourgeois way of life, which is its milieu. In other words, the movie’s quality stems in part from the fact that the private story blends seamlessly into its social and cultural setting, which is depicted with the same richness, precision and trenchant observation as the relationship between the protagonists.
From time to time the director returns to the present to show Tony’s physical and mental progress and offer a glimpse of the ties she forms with others in the clinic, many of them young people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. These are the weakest parts of the movie, tending to dramatic and emotional banality. Nevertheless, this is not a critical fault, thanks in large measure to the two leads: Bercot, who won the best actress prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and Cassel. Louis Garrel is also very good as the worried brother. (Also in the film is Isild Le Besco, Mawenn’s sister and like her, a filmmaker and actress, but who uses their surname.)
Despite the familiar narrative elements, the complex and setback-rife relationship between the man and the woman in the movie gives it a depth that few similar French films possess. The picture succeeds not only in affirming, in the words of the lovely Georges Brassens song, set to a poem by Louis Aragon, that “there is no happy love,” but also that there is no perfect love, because there are no perfect people. Both protagonists play a part in the deterioration of the relations between them. Both have a manipulative side, a tendency not to compromise and a propensity to the passive-aggressive in their mutual relations.
The result is a melodrama that comes out of a seemingly familiar place but morphs, at least in part, into a portrait of a relationship that exudes a feeling of credibility, perhaps even truth. I also like the title. It contains both irony and pathos, especially in the light of Israeli TV reality shows on which couples use phrases such as “my prince,” “my king,” “my life.” Mawenn’s film shows that epithets are one thing and life another.
Mon Roi Directed by Mawenn; written by Mawenn and Etienne Comar; with Emmanuelle Bercot, Vincent Cassel, Louis Garrel, Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin and Isild Le Besco.
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