French auteur Arnaud Desplechin is as slippery as he is talented. In Kings and Queen, his gripping, highly original, and damn sprawling dramatic study of psychologically fractured people and the relationships they botch, the filmmaker follows a broken narrative path to emphasize the jagged emotional states of a pair of divorced misérables. Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) is a single mother and art-gallery director who, having survived a lover’s suicide (among other romantic catastrophes), now has to cope with a father dying of cancer; in her aggravated distress, she’s trying to find her ex-husband so he can adopt her son. Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), the ex in question, is a shaggy, neurotic musician who has mistakenly been committed to a mental institution — that’s a whole other story — where his antics include sparring with the chief shrink (a grandiloquent Catherine Deneuve) and seducing a young fellow patient.
The two tremulous lives don’t so much intersect as bump, rub, and slip by each other: The narrative is a rich, and at times bewildering, riot of non sequiturs, flashbacks, mythological references, rap lyrics, Hong Kong action-flick fantasies, and melodramatic tropes. But by tempering the mania and offsetting the edginess of the deeply imperfect characters in this ambitiously free-form film, Desplechin offers that most old-form of balms — compassion.