After her gritty third feature film Polisse, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011, Maïwenn tackles a passionate relationship in Mon Roi (My King) a classic, dramatic Gallic manner where emotions seesaw but never quite strike a balance.
Maïwenn is skilled at transcribing real life in her films, never hesitating to push the limits, her protagonists often too honest for comfort. Yet we can’t quite believe in this bipolar love story, how someone can remain trapped in a relationship even when all the escape routes are wide open.
Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot), a lawyer, hadn’t chosen the easy way out. After damaging her knee in a skiing accident, she finds herself in a convalescence center. In between rehabilitation exercises and her free time where she hangs out with a group of young suburban working-class guys, she reflects in flashbacks on her turbulent 10-year relationship with ex-husband Georgio (Vincent Cassel), a debonair restaurateur with a dazzling personality and piercing blue eyes which conceal a darker side: a hedonistic egotist whose emotional abuse will ultimately destroy her.
Yet something seems off for the spectator. The supposed spark between them when they meet escapes me; she looks like a puppy with a crush, he seems disinterested. He invites her, her brother Solal (Louis Garrel) and his fiancée Babeth (Isild Le Besco, Maïwenn’s sister) for breakfast in his deluxe Parisian apartment and their story takes off from there, a passion so great that they cannot keep their hands off each other. They’re happy and in love. They soon shack up and begin to plan for a baby at his behest (he wants to form a family with a “normal girl” like her rather than his usual harem of models), and it is during her pregnancy that his real personality begins to unfold. And so the rollercoaster ride begins. She cannot seem to see him as he really is. Their refusal to wear wedding bands when they get married is symbolic of his quest for freedom.
She lets him decide the name of their son – Sinbad – and doesn’t react when he brings along his suicidal ex-girlfriend Agnès (Chrystèle Saint Louis Argentin) on a family vacation. And oh, she happens to be a former Vogue cover model.
Cassel excels as Georgio. His charming looks and wolfish smile convey a character that could get away with treating Tony like crap. In Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, also in competition, he plays a lecherous king; here he plays the modern-day equivalent: a womanizing egotist who has mastered the art of manipulation.
He is so convincing when he’s telling Tony that he didn’t sleep with the young girl in his bed — “I don’t know who she is…. I don’t remember… She drugged me” — that we almost start believing him like the enamored Tony does. And her drug is Georgio. Insecure, she forgives him over and over again, even when the bailiffs come to collect their furniture, despite knowing deep down that he is a liar.
Yet he has his honest moments. Early on their relationship, he tells her he is an asshole. She laughs it off, thinking it is one of the many facetious things he says. And when he declares his love very early on in their relationship — and in bed — she seems surprised but also falls for the trap he has set for her.
His co-star, however, fails to convince. Bercot, who directed the festival’s opening film, the off-competition Standing Tall, overplays Tony. She lacks presence and her performance is bland — she either sulks, screams, or sulks. Her character may be insecure but so is her performance, hyperbolized until it is no longer credible. She lacks a certain elegance in her delivery and the way she carries herself. She comes off as pathetic and often fails to provoke empathy. We feel her pain, we do, but also want to shake her, tell her to get a grip on herself. Even her brother cannot get through to her. The character also provides some comic relief to this grating film. Garrel, also presenting a film he directed in a parallel selection, strikes a balance between the caring brother and the family clown.
The more we watch Bercot in this seemingly autobiographical story (the director has always been quite open about her life), the more we think Maïwenn herself should have played the role. And while the direction is admirable, the film itself is often suffocating.
So who is “my king” – Sinbad or Georgio? With the volatile Tony, it is hard to tell.
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