“My King” – My life [MOVIE REVIEW]

Emmanuelle Bercot and Vincent Cassel in "Mon Roi." Photo courtesy of Film Movement
Emmanuelle Bercot and Vincent Cassel in "Mon Roi." Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

Emmanuelle Bercot and Vincent Cassel in “Mon Roi.” Photo courtesy of Film Movement.

In “My King,” writer/director Maïwenn  has given us the gift of another superb character drama of disturbing proportions. Her pervious film, “Polisse” was an intimate, one might even say claustrophobic study of the relationships between the members of the Child Protection Unit who form unbreakable bonds and support while investigating the kinds of horrific crimes that would annihilate most ordinary mortals. Maïwenn explored the co-dependency between colleagues that oftentimes destroyed their familiar relationships. The answer given to a spouse was invariably “you wouldn’t understand.” In the brilliant “My King,” Maïwenn takes the “you wouldn’t understand” in a different, co-dependent direction and explores the relationship of an accomplished woman who falls prey to a charming, magnetic abuser.

We meet Tony (full name: Marie Antoinette) atop a ski slope as she prepares to descend. Alone, determined and focused, she begins her literal and metaphoric descent, passing her child as she gathers speed and proceeds with reckless abandon. Our next shot of Tony is in an ambulance as she’s being transported to a rehabilitation hospital. She has severely damaged her knee and will need many weeks of painful physical therapy. Her injury is corporeal but her first stop, inexplicable to her, is a conversation with the resident psychologist who chirpily wants to discuss the psychic meaning behind the fall. In a groaning pop psychology moment, the therapist suggests that there is a hidden meaning behind the knee injury because if you break down the word “genou” (French for knee) into its homophonic components it would be I (je) and we (nous). “What,” she wants to know, “is wrong with Tony’s ‘I’ and ‘we’?” Tony ’s reaction to this intrusion is as eye-rolling as that of the viewer.

But as she is led through her torturous therapy, Tony does begin to think about her “I” and “we” and flashes back to the beginning of her relationship with Giorgio, the handsome lothario that she approached in a night club more than ten years previously. She had first met Giorgio when she was working her way through law school as a bartender at a chic club. Just as appealing as ever, she goes to his table, stares and tells him they’ve met before. When he looks blank, she flees with her brother and his girlfriend, but not before he catches up and tells her he remembers her name but not the circumstances. He offers to take the three of them to his apartment and fix them breakfast – he’s a restaurateur and chef. Tony is smitten, her slacker brother, less so.

And so begins the relationship of the smart but emotionally stunted Tony and the charismatic, sophisticated Giorgio, all of whose previous loves had been models. Tony is dazzled. Giorgio chose her over all the others. But this is a complicated relationship, one entirely dominated and controlled by Giorgio whose universe is unknown and inaccessible to her, even, or rather especially when she becomes his wife and has their child. Tony’s low self-esteem is a contributing factor to her descent into depression. Giorgio professes undying love but maintains his own apartment so, as he explains to her, they can be together when she is in a good mood and separate when she is annoying. His life contains many secrets but she is allowed none.

Maïwenn reveals to us a classic case of co-dependency and the countless ways in which abuse can be heaped upon a spouse and still have her crawling back, against her better judgment, for more. Never does Giorgio physically strike his wife but his calculating and disingenuous behavior turns the cowed Tony into a marionette that he can manipulate, control and cast aside at will. Tony always comes back; he always apologizes and she always believes him. When her brother encourages her to separate, she responds with the classic “you don’t understand.”

Each step of Tony’s painful physical rehabilitation becomes associated with her clear-eyed memory of an earlier time in her past relationship leading up to the present.

This is an extremely complex story. Giorgio is a sociopathic predator. It is entirely possible that he has no ulterior motive; this may be who he is, a sun who controls the rotation of those in his universe. It’s so easy to say that Tony should have had the power to leave the relationship when she realized the extent of his abuse but then that doesn’t account for the myriad reasons that she loves him. The story is told from her point of view, but it is a clear-eyed vision of a man she loves, tries to understand but who will destroy her intellectual well-being if she continues on this path.

There are no weaknesses in this film; the writing and direction are of the highest level. But contributing enormously, and possibly most importantly, are the two actors who play Tony and Giorgio. Emmanuelle Bercot, Tony, collaborated with Maïwenn on “Polisse” both as an actress and co-writer. Her fierceness, vulnerability and confusion send us deep into her psyche, an abyss from which there doesn’t appear to be a return. She can appear plain or strikingly beautiful. She is all things and her inability to fully understand the emotional danger she is in leaves us wanting to shout “Leave him!”

But on the other side of that equation is Giorgio, played by the  unsurpassed Vincent Cassel who has adeptly played menacing characters before, most notably in “Mésrine” and “Eastern Promises.” Every bit as charismatic as his character, he lures you into his sphere. He is an abuser but he is charming, loving, vulnerable, menacing, smart, and dangerous. To paraphrase Mary McCarthy’s famous quote about Lillian Hellman, everything he says is a lie, including “and” and “the.”

Cassel’s Giorgio is the very definition of expedient; he will say or do whatever works in the moment; and he does it beautifully and believably. Of course she fell for him; of course she stayed with him. What is so disturbing about this film is the realization that once in thrall to a man like Giorgio, a case study in psychological abuse, there may be no exit. She has let him define her and without him she is nothing. Bercot’s Tony is as helpless to escape the quick sand of her relationship as any woman who got too close to the pit.

In French with subtitles.

Opening Friday August 26 at the Laemmle Royal

 

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