I’ll Give It Ten Years: My King

my king

My King
Directed by Maïwenn
Opens August 12 at Lincoln Plaza

There is an old axiom that any relationship that begins in a bar is destined to fail. Appropriately, the protagonist’s brother (Louis Garrel) predicts “it won’t last” immediately after My King’s “Meet Cute,” set just outside a bar/club. So begins a ten-year amour fou between a criminal lawyer and a restaurateur notable not for its histrionics but for its subtlety; it feels neither hysterical nor false. Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel) love each other, but they aren’t quite right for one another.

My King is told through Tony’s eyes in flashback, giving us a female perspective that still feels rare in domestic dramas, despite being so common among the post-New Wave directors and their successors. In other hands, Georgio’s insistence on taking care of a depressed ex with whom he has long remained on good terms would likely be met with either the “hysterical female” who forbids it or the “cool girl” who doesn’t mind, but what bothers Tony is not the potential for romance—the concern arises but is dismissed fairly quickly—but rather how Georgio’s loyalty for a woman who needs help beyond his capabilities overrides his more immediate obligations. In this way, Maïwenn, whose Polisse garnered some criticism for being overwrought, proves herself a director of impressive subtlety. She conveys these thoughts and feelings largely through point-of-view and reaction shots of Tony, cueing us to share her exasperation.

Like any optimistic couple might, they try unsuccessfully to work it out as secrets surface and downward spirals ensue. The reliance on telegraphed tropes is a nag, but these events nonetheless feel more vital on the screen. Rather than turning emotions up to 11 in false attempts to tug at the heart strings, Maïwenn allows the scenario to play with variance, even grace. Occasionally these two yell at one another, and sometimes Georgio plays the manipulative, logical male, but more often they argue with only slightly—realistically—elevated voices or even opt for silence that plays simply as silence rather than as a precursor to the explosion. Bercot’s performance (awarded by the Cannes jury in 2005) is one of gracious, hearty laughs; of quiet, involuntary sighs; of hesitations in speech; it is not one of gesticulations and promulgations, and so never makes implicit, false claims to universality.

While the signposting and some clunky storytelling, including the literalized knee-injury frame, and a regrettable (but short) sequence in which Tony struggles with her own addiction are hackneyed, My King is a reminder that even stories of the grandest, most exuberant aspects of life sometimes find truth in the smallest of details.

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