George Lucas may be the only moviemaking billionaire I have ever met (if only briefly), at a college campus in Pennsylvania. I happened to be lecturing there, and Francis Ford Coppola was shooting The Rain People (1969). Mr. Lucas just seemed to be hanging around as an apprentice to Mr. Coppola, his quiet, shy manner making the future billionaire seem even younger than he was.
Not long after that, I saw Mr. Lucas and Mr. Coppola and their respective families sitting together at an A.F.I. shindig at the Kennedy Center. I also noticed a new upstart named Steven Spielberg sitting in another part of the auditorium. What was interesting about these emerging talents was that they belonged to a new breed of movie-buff filmmakers.
Flash-forward to the first New York press screening of Star Wars (1977). I sat there, not really liking it very much, and misinterpreting the frequent laughter it evoked from the audience as deservedly derisive. Hence, I assumed that the viewers were laughing at it and not, as it turned out, with it. So, needless to say, I’ve been out of the Star Wars orbit for close to 30 years, and I still can’t figure out what people-even young and little people-find so magical about the series. After all, even though it’s hard to believe, I was once a young and little person myself.
Indeed, I was of two minds about even seeing, much less reviewing, the latest (and, as mercifully promised, final) installment of Star Wars, magisterially titled Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. The what? Oh, never mind. After all these years, what was there left for me to say in the realm of fruitless negativity? If I never see another endless light-saber duel, it’ll be too soon. Having “missed” the one press screening in a spasm of Freudian forgetfulness, I was prepared to sit out this, the official opening of the Summer Blockbuster Season, altogether.
But then there was a bizarre thunderclap from the right about Mr. Lucas’ professed anti-Bush feelings finding expression in his intergalactic fantasy. This was ironic, since Ronald Reagan had exploited Mr. Lucas’ “Evil Empire” as a rhetorical weapon in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Could this be a new angle for me to consider? So I trudged off to the Loews Orpheum at 9:30 in the morning on a rainy Friday to beat the anticipated afternoon and evening mobs of true believers. The theater was about one-third full, which was unprecedented in my early-show moviegoing experience. The audience was composed mostly of minority schoolchildren from uptown shepherded by their teachers-better and better, for my purposes.
After the mandatory half-hour of commercials and coming attractions, mostly of doomsday spectacles exploding with special effects, the Star Wars saga with its overfamiliar and overbearing John Williams score roared onto the screen. Not far into the first third of the movie, I didn’t think I was going to make it all the way through the percussive nonstop action. Then came the middle third of clumsily articulated political exposition with such buzzwords as “republic,” “empire,” “democracy,” “Senate,” “liberty” and “peace” interspersed with a badly written and badly acted B-picture romance. (I refuse to believe the rumor that Tom Stoppard collaborated with Mr. Lucas on the script.)
Then came the last third, which consisted mostly of two separate but related light-saber duels that went on and on, followed by two hospital scenes, one giving cosmetic and spiritual birth to Darth Vader, and the other showing the seemingly immaculate birth of twins delivered at the cost of the mother’s life. If ever an ending seemed to cry out for a sequel, it was this in medias res anticlimax, in which the bad guys emerge triumphant while the surviving good guys go into hiding. But presumably the sequel had already been made in the form of the first Star Wars movie-and so, in a sense, we were now back before the beginning.
No matter: The kids cheered at the end, and since the world is filled with people’s children and grandchildren, the picture should do remarkably well at the box office-unless conservative zealots in the red states organize an effective boycott by feasting on such allegorically charged lines as “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy” (Bush on the war on terror); “Only a Sith thinks in absolutes” (Bush on stem-cell research); and “This is how liberty dies-to thunderous applause” (Bush’s re-election).
The problem with any political analysis of the Star Wars phenomenon is that Mr. Lucas has never made a serious effort to depict a functioning human society. Setting the series in a far-off galaxy, light-years away in time and space, makes his world escapist enough. But even more trivializing is the diffusion of speech and consciousness among a mixture of creatures: Some are lower on the evolutionary scale than humans; some recognizably human enough for the audience to identify with; and some are created by humans as servile androids. From the beginning, these three types of beings have intermingled freely in a state of tolerant cuteness that is much closer to the world of animated cartoons than to the real world.
Yet when push comes to shove, the only creatures in Mr. Lucas’ world with an inner life and the capacity to evolve and even procreate are people like us. There is an elitism at work here that makes a mockery of words like “liberty,” “democracy” and “republic.” It is largely the elitism of family, particularly of fathers and sons.
Still, the original question that I was there to ask was this: Did I find anything new in Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith that I haven’t discerned in previous Star Wars films? The answer is: Yes and no. The burgeoning auteur I first met in 1969 is now 61 years old. There are consequently, and inescapably, more intimations of mortality than there were in the beginning of the Star Wars saga. There are also more intimations of corruption, deception, treachery and betrayal than I can recall from previous segments. Some of this comparatively pessimistic outlook may be attributed to the gloomy outlook of today’s political climate. Still, by going backward chronologically to a time just before Luke Skywalker, the 1977 film’s protagonist, was born, Mr. Lucas couldn’t avoid going forward in time to his own ever-evolving existential outlook.
Influenced as he always has been by mythmakers from Homer to Joseph Campbell, Mr. Lucas adds a touch of Shakespeare by afflicting Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) with a recurring dream that his pregnant wife Padmé (Natalie Portman) is going to die. But in another galaxy and in another time, Sigmund Freud could have told Anakin that his supposed fear of his wife’s death was really a displacement of his own fear of death. Yet Anakin’s dream provides his rationale for betraying the Knights of the Jedi, and ultimately the Republic, in the hope that the dark side to which the Sith leader has access will keep his wife from dying-and, by extension, make him immortal as well.
The pattern of betrayal is established at the outset when Anakin and his best friend and mentor, the Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), are sent to rescue Senate Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) from the evil clutches of Count Dooku (Christopher Lee). This they accomplish with a prodigious command of their light sabers and a bit of derring-do as well. What neither Anakin nor Obi-Wan know at the time is that Palpatine is a Trojan horse plotting to overthrow the Republic and the Knights of the Jedi so as to bring an empire of the Sith into being. Sensing that Anakin is somewhat disgruntled at the apparent reluctance of Jedi leader Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) to make Anakin a Jedi Knight, Palpatine sets out to convert Anakin to the Sith cause, first by persuading him that the Jedi are seeking to subvert the Republic, and then by suggesting that the Dark Side contains the secrets that will spare Padmé’s life. Mr. Christensen’s relentlessly sullen expressions as Anakin gives the show away much too early, and Mr. McGregor-easily capable of matching Harrison Ford’s charisma and charm as Han Solo in the 1977 Star Wars-is instead misdirected to give a monotonously rigid performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Opinions differ on Yoda (Frank Oz) as a cartoon-like character with a hyper-human articulateness and humorous expressiveness. I thought he made a worthy adversary for the wily and cunning Palpatine. But he wasn’t enough to overcome my resistance to the sheer placelessness of what are supposed to be cityscapes, let alone the unexplained apocalyptic background of volcanic footage from Mount Etna. I must confess, however, that there were more than a few moments when I was singularly impressed by Mr. Lucas’ undeniable stylistic conviction about the essential rightness of what he’s been doing all these years. This relates not only to the Star Wars films and the close-to-enchanting quasi-autobiographical romp through his young adult life in Modesto, Calif., in American Graffiti (1973), but also includes all the venturesome projects of other filmmakers he has supported and produced. With no basis for comparison, I suspect that for a billionaire moviemaker, Mr. Lucas is a remarkably nice guy.
Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen ( Rois et Reine), from a screenplay by Mr. Desplechin and Roger Bohbot, is nothing if not complex. The film repeatedly shifts its narrative focus back and forth between the contrasting worlds of two lead characters alienated from each other. Its narrative certainly breaks all the rules of professional screenwriting by clouding up these characters with “surprise” revelations that do nothing to either bring the two characters together or drive them further apart.
Yet Kings and Queen is remarkably consistent with the director’s previous exercises in helter-skelter aesthetics: Esther Kahn (2000), My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument (1996) and La Sentinelle (1992).
The film begins with the narration of Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), a 35-year-old art-gallery manager living in Paris. We learn that Nora’s elderly father, Louis (Maurice Garrel), lives in Grenoble and is taking care of her 10-year-old son, Elias (Valentine Lelong), for the summer. In accordance with her name-inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s self-liberated housewife in A Doll’s House-Nora is at a turning point in her life: She is already a twice-divorced single mother who is about to marry Jacques, a cold-fish Parisian businessman. Accompanying her narration is the complacent sentimentality of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” à la Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), which lulls us into thinking that this particular Nora will remain in complete control of the film and her own life.
But nothing could be further from Mr. Desplechin’s intention, as outlined in his director’s statement:
“When I started to write Kings and Queen, I couldn’t stop thinking about those women destined for tragedy I had discovered as a child in Hitchcock movies. I recalled Rebecca and Marnie, of course, and above all Ingrid Bergman in Notorious and Under Capricorn. Women tormented by problems who manage to overcome them on their own … like sinister fairy tales. How giddy it made me feel to discover these grand and mysterious heroines! These were the first female movie characters I came to love.”
He goes on: “A woman, alone, finds herself by chance in something resembling a Hawthorne story: a strange town, ghosts from the past, and then … misfortune … her name is Nora.”
As the film progresses, the complications and contradictions in Nora’s life begin to multiply. Nora’s father Louis, a gloomy writer, is hospitalized for an ulcer and diagnosed instead with terminal bowel cancer; he’s given only a week to live. Nora is confronted with the immediate problem of taking care of her son Elias while frantically trying to locate her wandering drug-addict sister, Chloé (Natalie Boutefeu), who has been living on handouts from her guilt-ridden father, who has always treated Nora as his favorite. Though Nora intends to go ahead with her marriage to Jacques, she fully realizes that Jacques and Elias do not get along.
Suddenly, the film shifts to its second major character, Ismaël Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric), Nora’s second ex-husband, a disheveled, suicidal viola player. Ismaël keeps a noose in his living room and is unsuccessfully trying to save his home from the tax collector. One day, he receives a visit from two orderlies from a sanitarium for the mentally ill, on the recommendation of a third party who believes that Ismaël be admitted for a 10-day observation period.
Why the insertion of Ismaël into Nora’s story? Mr. Desplechin explains: “She needed a companion on her solitary, tragic journey: a comic figure … we gave him every fault known to man, and with each passing day he becomes more delightful.”
This conscious-even self-conscious-mixture of moods and genres seldom works for audiences, but if one stays with Mr. Desplechin’s wild improvisations, he or she will be rewarded with an uncommon approximation of real life, with all its digressive uncertainties. One can also regard Kings and Queen as a double vehicle for two Desplechin veterans, Ms. Devos and Mr. Amalric, two of the most accomplished acting presences in French cinema.
While Ismaël is grappling with his inner demons, Nora makes the shockingly disheartening discovery that the last pages of her father’s manuscript for what will be his last book consists of a diatribe against her for her pride and self-absorption. He regrets having spoiled her at the expense of his less charismatic daughter, Chloé. In the unkindest cut of all, Louis wishes that Nora could die in his place.
Nora responds to this parental assault from just this side of the grave by calmly tearing out and burning the offending pages of her father’s manuscript. She then races to the sanitarium to persuade Ismaël to adopt Elias, since he had been a loving stepfather to the child during their seven-year marriage.
A bare-bones synopsis cannot do justice to the richness of Ismaël’s long conversational scenes not only with Elias, but also with a sanitarium psychiatrist, Mme. Vasset, played with cool, humorous detachment by Catherine Deneuve in a striking cameo appearance. Ismaël’s regular psychiatrist is the legendary Dr. Devereux, who is spoken of in hushed, reverent tones by the sanitarium superiors when they permit Ismael to leave the institution for his regular appointment. This provides Mr. Desplechin with a striking visual gag when Dr. Devereux turns out to be a portly Franco-African woman, who shatters both racial and professional stereotypes for a presumably politically correct audience.
There is also an engaging subplot involving Ismaël and a suicidal female inmate named Arielle (Magali Woch), who plays a crucial role in enabling Ismaël to pull his life and musical career out of the doldrums. All in all, Kings and Queen is a marvelously textured and civilized study of two tormented souls finding redemption not in each other, but in themselves and in other people. Nora provides the biggest shock of all with her matter-of-fact confession to herself: “Life is full of surprises. I’ve loved four men and killed two.” See the movie to find out how and why.