“Dream Maker and Heart Breaker” – Engendering Epic in Kings

Corinne Pache, Trinity University
“Le passé, ce n’est pas ce qui a disparu, c’est au contraire ce qui nous appartient.”
“The past is not what has disappeared, it is on the contrary what belongs to us.”

Kings and Queen [1]
Arnaud Desplechin’s 2004 Kings and Queen tells the story of two former lovers, Nora and Ismael, as they remember their past and start new lives. Alternating between a first-person confessional perspective and a more impersonal style, the story line combines tragedy and comedy. The two perspectives meet, intertwine, and collide with one another much as the relationship between Nora and Ismael evolves through time. While ostensibly about ordinary people facing everyday joys and disappointments, the film begins with an arpeggio played on a harp and a voiceover describing how Zeus loved the beautiful Leda and came to her as a swan, an opening gesture that places the narrative firmly in the realm of epic. Like Yeats, author of the famous poem “Leda and the Swan,” Desplechin sees myth as a source of inspiration and self-understanding. Critics have noted the important place given to modern poetry and psychoanalysis in Desplechin’s film, but it is Greek myth that is at the core of and provides a key to understanding Kings and Queen. In the following pages, I trace the visual and poetic motifs that link Kings and Queen to Greek myth in general, and more particularly to the Odyssey, and show how Desplechin uses the classical tradition to “engender”—to use Yeats’ word—a modern epic of homecoming that transforms and transcends its ancient models.
The story of Kings and Queen is as straightforward as the structure of the film is complex: we encounter two former lovers, Nora and Ismael, after their relationship has ended. Nora faces the illness and death of her father and prepares for her imminent wedding, while Ismael is committed to a psychiatric hospital for depression and erratic behavior at the request of an unknown third party. Through entwined flashbacks, we also learn of their past together. Over the course of the film, both characters emerge from their trials transformed, and the film concludes with a bittersweet epilogue in which Ismael says goodbye to Nora’s young son Elias. Through the ordeals of its two main characters, the film explores the questions of memory, filiation, heritage, and identity—those pivotal preoccupations of ancient epic—in a thoroughly original manner.
As I have mentioned above, the film starts with the sound of a harp and a voice-over describing how Zeus approached Leda in the form of a swan; this opening creates a mythological frame for the characters we are about to encounter that places them in a magical and epic realm. The motif of Leda and the swan is also kept alive visually in the form of an engraving that Nora buys early in the film as a gift for her father, Louis Jenssens, a retired professor of Greek who lives in the provincial town of Grenoble. The art dealer explains to Nora that the 18th century engraving was modeled on an ancient Roman painting and subsequently colored by another artist in the 19th century. The engraving provides an apt symbol of Desplechin’s multilayered allusive style, in which every allusion hides another.
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CAPTION: Leda and the Swan

The title Kings and Queen suggests multiple images: in chess, a board with only two kings and a queen suggests a lethal situation for the widower king; or one may think of the Odyssean conflict in which several kings vie for one queen; and, within the context of the film, the title conjures Nora and her lovers. Desplechin’s source for the title is a short poem by Michel Leiris:

Roi san arroi,
reine sans arène,
tour trouée,
fou à lier,
cavalier seul.
King without a retinue
Queen without a court
Castle breached
Bishop betrayed
Knight all alone. [2]

Leiris’ poem plays on the metaphor of chess as life. The lines describe isolated figures on a chessboard, but the combination of these particular pieces suddenly comes to life. Leiris draws attention to the narrative power of traditional chess elements, and to the ways in which the artist can weave these elements into a human story.

Desplechin has commented on the poem and its role as an inspiration for his film:

“The film tries to draw something larger than life, so it would be about kings and queens. (. . .) All kids know that their fathers are kings and that they are princes, but when we grow up we forget. That’s why we watch films—to remind us of the obvious truth, that our lives are those of kings and queens.” [3]

Desplechin also comments, in the filmed interview accompanying the DVD, on his extensive use of quotations, explaining how the film must work regardless of whether people recognize particular allusions. While the story does make sense regardless of one’s knowledge of Yeats, Apollinaire or Homer, the constant references to literature collectively make a more interesting point about the nature of the literary tradition and its role in our lives. Like poetry, film transforms the raw material of daily life into the mythical and magical. We learn late in the film that the title of Louis Jenssens’ last book is Cavalier Seul, another allusion to Leiris’ poem, but we cannot tell at what level the allusion works: is Louis quoting Leiris, or is Desplechin playing with the metaphor of life as a game of chess by having his characters obliviously reenact a game that has been played countless times. The two possibilities are not incompatible since, alongside more self-conscious allusions, Desplechin also highlights repetition as a theme that allows for accidental resemblances. Whether parallels are planned or unintentional, the effect is the same in creating, and stressing the importance of, connections to the literary tradition.

Another connection between Kings and Queen and ancient epic is the emphasis on the art of memory. When Ismael tells Nora’s young son, Elias, “Le passé, ce n’est pas ce qui a disparu, c’est au contraire ce qui nous appartient,” he points to memory as the repository of our stories, photographs, buildings, paintings, and music. The past belongs to us through the art of the past, and art makes us all, even if only for a moment, into kings and queens.
Before I turn to the parallels between the film and ancient epic, I’d like to give one more example of a typical Desplechin allusion. The song “Moon River” bookends the film in a lyric-less jazz version, which makes the music sound both familiar and open-ended. The song’s unsung lyrics, from which I took my title, evokes life as a journey:

Moon River, wider than a mile,
I’m crossing you in style some day.
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
wherever you’re going I’m going your way.
Two drifters off to see the world.
There’s such a lot of world to see.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end—
waiting ’round the bend,
my huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me. [4]

The song was composed for the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In a memorable scene Holly Golightly (played by Audrey Hepburn), perched on the fire escape of her New York apartment, sings the song while accompanying herself on the guitar. The music thus evokes the earlier film’s heroine, a woman who, like Nora, refuses to define herself by the tragic events of her life and who fashions herself as a queen who will, some day, cross the river “in style.” [5] The lyrics also indirectly evoke two famous literary wanderers, Huck and Jim from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The river itself represents Holly Golightly’s hopes and dreams for her life, but also her awareness of its risks, and the potential for disappointment and loss. Dreams lead to heartbreak, but together they can provide the inspiration to transform the everyday into song.

Like the Odyssey, which starts with Penelope and Telemachos on Ithaka before moving on to Odysseus and his nostos, the narrative starts with a female protagonist and her son, and then moves to the ordeals of the male hero. The film shifts back and forth between past and present, and between the two main protagonists who share the screen only for a few minutes in two scenes. The tone of the film changes dramatically depending on whether we are following Nora or Ismael. Nora’s life is told as a melodrama, while Ismael’s story is told as a farce. In both cases, the tone contrasts with the protagonists’ views of themselves with Nora favoring a light touch despite the tragic events that surround her and Ismael fancying himself as a tragic heroic figure even though his ordeals are comparatively lesser.
Desplechin connects his two main characters to ancient mythic figures through both literary allusions and visual motifs. Kings and Queen starts and ends with Nora: a title identifies the beginning of the movie as “Part I, Nora” and, as she exits a taxi, we hear her introducing herself. Her name is immensely evocative: it suggests the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll House, but also Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife, who was the model for Molly Bloom, the Penelope figure of Joyce’s Ulysses. These modern associations point backwards to the heroine of the Odyssey and give a mythic dimension to her character. When the movie cuts to another scene inside a house, where Nora sits on a chair in front of a window talking about her life, the scene acquires the feel of a documentary – she addresses the camera directly—or perhaps a psychoanalysis session with the audience put in the role of the analyst (again we may be reminded of Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness in the last episode of Joyce’s Ulysses). Towards the end of the film, the camera will cut back to Nora speaking again directly to the camera, which tempts us to see the entire story as filtered through her eyes. But we get to see the world both as Nora wants to understand it and from the more comprehensive perspective of the external narrative.
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CAPTION: Nora (Emanuelle Devos) tells her life story

Nora tells us that she has a son, Elias, born from a first marriage, and that she is about to marry again, for the third time. As the movie progresses, Nora reveals herself to be as unreliable a narrator as she is beguiling, and nothing is quite as she presents it. Eventually she comes to embody the figure of Leda as well as both aspects of the twins born of the union of Leda and the swan, Helen and Klytemnestra. A modern Helen, she is an ambivalent figure who is rendered both irresistible and isolated by her beauty. The stories she tells about her past, like those of Helen in Odyssey 4, contradict the memories of other characters. Helen has to administer to her husband and guests a drug (pharmakon) that eradicates grief before she and Menelaos can talk about the Trojan War. Nora’s very presence similarly is often the cause of suffering, which, in the case of Ismael, can be alleviated only by the drugs forced upon him when he is admitted at the psychiatric hospital. Nora is also a Klytemnestra figure. Towards the end of the film, she lets slip matter-of-factly that she has killed two of the four men she has loved: Pierre Cotterelle, who was Elias’ father, and her own. Her role in Pierre’s death remains ambiguous, but we see her administer the morphine that hastens her father’s death from advanced cancer. Nora’s father, who may also have been her lover, shockingly reveals in a posthumous letter to her that he sees her as a murderous monster full of anger and bitterness. Although Nora has not been entirely loyal to either Elias’ biological father or to Ismael, she nevertheless is also a Penelope figure. She is linked to the female protagonist of the Odyssey through her name, which, as I have already pointed out, obliquely evokes Joyce’s Ulysses, but also thematically as a mother and wife who patiently waits and weaves her son’s future.
Ismael’s story centers on his depression after his separation from Nora and his subsequent forced stay in a psychiatric hospital. His name, like Nora’s, links him to the Western epic tradition via Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as well as the Biblical tradition. In the Hebrew Bible, Ismael (or Ishmael) is the son of Abraham and his servant Hagar. According to the Hebrew Bible, an angel tells Hagar to give the unborn child the name Ismael, which means “may God hear,” “for the Lord has heard of your misery.” [6] The name acquires its full meaning later on when the grown up Ismael and his mother are exiled by Abraham and, once again, placed under God’s protection.
While Kings and Queen chronicles the modern Ismael’s descent into madness and recovery in a slapstick style that contrasts with the depressing setting of the clinic, visual clues evoke Ismael’s role as an outcast. Besides the biblical and literary reverberations of his name, Ismael is also represented as a self-cast heroic figure through the visual leitmotif of Herakles’ labors that accompany him throughout the film. The first image we see when the film turns to Ismael is a small engraving on the wall of his apartment depicting Herakles fighting the river Acheloos. In one revealing moment, Ismael puts up the same engraving on the wall of his room at the clinic. Later, Ismael wears a hooded sweatshirt with a lion’s head on its back. While Ismael clearly considers himself a tragic and heroic figure, the juxtaposition between his actual ordeal and the labors of Herakles ironically reveals the differences between his and the ancient hero’s agones.
The trials of Ismael ultimately have more to do with Odysseus’ adventures. For our hero, the hospital becomes the cave of the Kyklops, the land of the Lotus Eaters, the islands of Kirke and Kalypso, and the land of the Phaiakians. Ismael is brought to the hospital against his will, and during his first night there he engages in a violent fight against a very strong male nurse who almost loses an eye. With his drug-crazed lawyer, Maitre Mamanne, Ismael discovers the delights of oblivion produced by prescription drugs such as Subutex (prescribed for opiate dependent patients), Solian (an antipsychotic drug), and the philosophically named Atarax (an antihistamine prescribed to relieve anxiety). The Circean temptation of a beautiful young nurse temporarily allays Ismael’s despair, but also delays the deeper connection he starts to form with a young patient, Arielle Phénix, who, as her name indicates, is both the symbol and means of his renewal and eventual homecoming.
The link between Ismael and Odysseus is further solidified through song. On the DVD commentary, Desplechin mentions that he wanted to include a scene in the middle of the movie where Ismael sings and dances in the tradition of the Marx Brothers’ movies, which would fit in with the vaudevillian tone of Ismael’s stay in the hospital, but which would also be “a bit wilder” as Desplechin puts it. About midway through the film, Ismael decides to dance to a recorded song during a group therapy session. Just as Odysseus takes on the role of the poet in the Odyssey by relating his adventures in the first person to the Phaiakians, Ismael’s performance is a turning point for the narrative and becomes Ismael’s first step towards escaping the world of the hospital. For the first time, Ismael displays pleasure and a momentary happiness, by becoming a performer who delights both the internal and external audiences.
Just as he does with literary references, Desplechin uses musical motifs from a broad cultural spectrum—from classical music to contemporary hip-hop. Ismael is in fact a professional viola player, who, when asked what it is he likes about his instrument, responds that he loves it because it is “varied.” It is thus no surprise that Ismael’s taste in music is inclusive and the song he chooses for his dance is in turn wonderfully suggestive. The only words in this hip hop song by Marley Marl are “do u remember.” The rest of the track consists of quotations of various tunes by other well-known rappers of the 1980s, which were presumably happier times for Ismael. The dance is thus a condensed way for our hero to tell of his past adventures.
As the film continuously shifts between Ismael’s and Nora’s perspectives, their different paths converge only twice, once in the hospital and again at the end of the film. Nora goes to visit Ismael in the hospital because she wants him to officially adopt Elias. The request is strange, coming from the woman who left him and is about to remarry. On one level, it’s only paperwork to be signed, as Nora tells him, but Ismael knows that there is much more at stake in the process of adoption and after considering it, he eventually rejects Nora’s request, and explains his reasons to Elias at the end of the film. Elias in a way is the last remaining connection between Nora and Ismael, but the film works towards a resolution that leads to a separation rather than a reunion. Nora’s and Ismael’s stories follow parallel narrative arcs, in which they face similar though separate trials, and both suffer most in the second half of the film, “Libérations Terribles” (Cruel Releases), when they discover the discrepancy between their self-image and what others think of them.
When Ismael leaves the hospital, he goes to meet his cousin, the lead violinist of their string quartet. As Ismael thanks Christian for worrying about him and calling his sister, he learns that Christian actually was the person who started the process to have him committed to the psychiatric hospital. Instead of a worried cousin, he discovers a man who confesses to have hated him for over ten years. While the content of the dialogue is momentous, Christian’s demeanor is calm and he smiles as he lists Ismael’s faults, his arrogance, scorn, and negligence.
In the case of Nora, a final confrontation with her father happens after his death, when she finds a letter Louis wrote to her hidden in the manuscript of his last book. In the letter, Louis accuses her of being a bitter and resentful monster, and tells her that he fears and hates her. Instead of using the voice-over traditionally used in film to reveal the contents of written texts, Desplechin shows Louis dressed in black in front of a dark grey background, speaking the words of his letter. The flickering image recalls early motion pictures, and Nora’s father in effect becomes a ghost cursing his daughter. The shocking revelation of his hatred could, and are probably meant to, destroy her, but Nora burns the letter, and keeps the engraving of Leda and the Swan. The only remaining trace of her father’s letter is a red mark on Nora’s abdomen, where she briefly hid the letter from her sister’s gaze—a physical marker of the pain experienced by Nora and a symbol of her capacity for recovery.
As Ismael and Nora realize how others see them, we, the viewers experience a similar shock. Christian’s and Louis’s animosity makes us realize that the way Nora and Ismael understand their own stories is only partial, but those same emotions also make us ultimately doubt the accounts of their accusers. We are left with more questions than answers. Yet both Ismael and Nora emerge from the encounters not only unscathed, but somehow stronger.
Desplechin argues that there is “no difference between the people who have the knowledge and the people who have none.” For him, there is an essential distinction to be made between the proudly elitist tendencies of high art and film conceived as a medium of popular culture that can explore life and all its complexities with depth yet remain accessible to all, regardless of background. [7] Yet the fact remains that many of Desplechin’s allusions belong to the world of high culture. Strikingly, the end credits include an acknowledgement of some of the film’s literary allusions: George Devereux’s Psychothérapie d’un Indien des Plaines, Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, George Apollinaire, and Emily Dickinson. But the list is confusing in its partiality: why cite these works, and not, for example, W. B. Yeats, Michel Leiris, whom I have already discussed, or Blaise Cendrars, who is quoted at length in the film without acknowledgment? Kings and Queen’s juxtaposition of high and low culture ultimately reaffirms the validity of the very distinction Desplechin claims not to countenance. There is a pleasure in disentangling the layers of references to the literary tradition that is denied to those who do not recognize them. The film thus becomes itself becomes a strong statement for the value and the delights of being connected to the literary tradition.
The characters of Kings and Queen have the kind of knowledge that allows them to use and understand literary allusions, and their allusions become themselves a form of teaching and transmitting a tradition. During a meeting with his psychoanalyst, Dr. Devereux, an imposing African American woman (whose name is inspired by the real-life psychoethnologist George Devereux), Ismael describes how he woke up happy that morning because he finally had a “real dream,” which he was looking forward to describe to her. The dream includes a church, a ceremony, and a great crowd of happy citizens celebrating some kind of ceremony at the foot of two ladders (one tall “ceremonial” ladder and another, shorter one); half-way up one of the ladders is the queen of England, while on the shorter ladder is Ismael’s “third grandmother.” Ismael himself is in the dream as a twelve year old, standing in the middle of the crowd. In the dream, Ismael explains to Dr. Devereux, the citizens believe that each rung of the ladders symbolizes “a further degree of knowledge.” Ismael’s dream is complicated by Desplechin’s insertion of visual clips that are only partially related to the verbal description. We see black and white pictures of armies, crowds, tribal dances, and a coronation ceremony rendered in documentary footage from different countries and time periods.
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CAPTION: Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) recounts his dream

Ismael goes on to describe how, on his way to the psychiatrist, he suddenly realized that the dream “meant nothing at all” and that it was “just an allusion” to a poem by Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” with his subconscious making “some cheap puns on an Irish poem!” Ismael claims not to remember the lines well, but then proceeds to cite them perfectly in English: “Now that my ladder’s gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start.” Ismael shares three interpretations of the dream: it may be a dream of impotence that depicts Ismael’s inability to climb the ladder (he is “finished as a man”); it may be a symbol of Ismael’s subversive desire to look under the skirt of the Queen of England, who represents the psychiatrist; and, finally, it may be a solution to the problem of translating Yeats’ verse. The latter interpretation is the most disappointing to Ismael (who finds it “tragic dreaming about translation problems” and wonders why he can’t have “normal” dreams “like patients in Freud’s books”), but the most interesting to us. The problem revolves around how to translate Yeats’ “lie down.” Most French translators, according to Ismael, interpret “to lie down” as “to die” (“j’agonise”), while he prefers to take it as “to rest” (“je me repose”). Ismael goes on to explain that Yeats has “lost his imagination’s ladder but never mind. Now he is resting there, at the very spot where all the ladders of the mind originate. Therefore, it’s an optimistic poem.” In Ismael’s hopeful interpretation, the ladders represent human knowledge, and it is the ladders’ existence that provides the key to the poem, whether we climb them or lie down at the bottom.
Ismael’s dream of Yeats’ ladders is another apt symbol of Desplechin’s multilayered allusions. In Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the poet realizes that the original inspiration for his art was in the distressingly raw material of life (“the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”), while Desplechin highlights the ways in which art shapes character. Not only do his protagonists constantly quote and refer to music and poetry, but many frames of the film include visual references to the literary and artistic tradition in the form of books, music, and paintings. Ismael is distressed at realizing that his dream merely reflects an attempt on the part of his subconscious to interpret a poem rather than a direct conduit to his own innermost being, but he overlooks, or underestimates, the connection between art and experience. For Yeats, “where all the ladders start” is a place of abjection, but also a place from which to aspire to art as a means of liberation. In Ismael’s interpretation of the poem, the ladders are strictly about the acquisition of knowledge, but for Yeats, and by extension for Desplechin, the ladders lead not only to knowledge but to the myths, poetry, and stories that give shape to our feelings and lives.
While there is no reunion for Nora and Ismael, like the Odyssey, Kings and Queen ends with an image of fathers and sons in the form of a family tree drawn by Nora’s young son, Elias. To Elias, what matters most is a sense of connection, and he includes both his blood and adopted relatives as he pastes photographs on the tree. As Ismael’s grandmother puts it earlier, whether children and parents are connected by blood ties or through adoption ultimately matters little, it is the fact of the connection that matters. The questions of filiation and paternity that are so central to the film are also reflected in the ways in which ancient epic themes are filtered through a long series of poets and artists. The connection with the classical tradition can be either organic or explicit: the connection can be obscure and unacknowledged, as when the expression of an unknown ancestor suddenly flashes on an unaware descendant’s features, while Homeric epic is explicitly present through Yeats, Apollinaire and Joyce. The focus on filiation is reminiscent of Harold Bloom’s psychoanalytical approach to the literary tradition, although the anxiety and antagonism so central to Bloom’s theory are strikingly absent from Kings and Queen. [8]
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CAPTION: Elias’ genealogical tree

Kings and Queen has much to say about the centrality of myth in our lives. By opening his narrative with the union of Leda and the Swan, Desplechin invokes a foundational event in Greek myth that ultimately leads both to the Trojan War and to the adventures of Odysseus, and therefore to the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two great epics that stand at the beginning of the Western literary tradition. Yet, while Desplechin uses myth as a source of inspiration for his narrative, he also transforms it, and, like the 19th century artist who transforms with color the engraving of Leda and the Swan, in the process creates a fresh story about ancient themes. The past is “what belongs to us,” as Ismael tells Elias, and Desplechin both acknowledges the sources of his inspiration and transforms them. Greek myth is thus at the forefront and in the background of Kings and Queen, but the epic that results is resoundingly modern and a classic in its own right.


[ back ] 1. I want to thank Marianne Hopman and Justin Isenhart for reading this essay and for their insightful questions and suggestions. And most of all, I thank Greg Nagy for showing me, a long time ago, how the past, then and now, illuminates the present.
[ back ] 2. The poem was originally published in Michel Leiris’ 1981 Le ruban au cou d’Olympia, 83. The translation is quoted in an interview with Desplechin in Film Comment 41 (May 2005).
[ back ] 3. Film Comment 41 (May 2005).
[ back ] 4. Music by Henry Mancini, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.
[ back ] 5. Desplechin talks about the link between the Audrey Hepburn character and Nora in Film Comment: “What I find so striking in Hepburn’s performance is the idea that when you’re in deep shit, the only moral position you can adopt is dignity, to behave like a queen.” Film Comment 41 (May 2005).
[ back ] 6. The King James Bible, Genesis 16.11.
[ back ] 7. Bright Lights Film Journal 49 (August 2005) http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/49/despiv.htm
[ back ] 8. Bloom, H. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997.