The wonderful Mathieu Amalric plays violist Ismael, one of four "kings" in the life of Nora (Emmanuelle Devos, whose previous work with Desplechin includes 2000's "Esther Kahn"). Nora is a 35-year-old widow who's tending to her dying father (Maurice Garrel), a renowned writer, while her 10-year-old son (Valentin Lelong) dreads her pending, already loveless marriage to wealthy businessman (Olivier Rabourdin). Ismael, meanwhile, has been involuntarily confined to a psychiatric hospital, where he befriends a suicidal young woman Arielle (Magali Woch) and withstands the half-hearted interrogations of a psychiatrist (Catherine Deneuve, quintessentially frosty, with the barest suggestion of a menacing smirk). Just short of an hour into the lengthy but not bloated film, the connection between Nora and Ismael becomes clear.
In this triptych-with-epilogue, the "truth" gradually reveals itself in a way that's closer to real life than the trauma-on-the-sleeve conventions of many movies. Devastating past events surface from the dream realm, where characters sometimes move like actors on a stage and intended screams emerge as whispers. Sanity becomes a kind of moving target. Even with his tax troubles and drug-addled attorney, his fondness for a red-and-gold cape and his noose in the living room, Ismael is in many ways the most reasonable character in the story. When his goofy but deep compassion explodes, as in a break-dancing performance for other patients at the hospital, an unexpected generosity infuses the screen.
As revelations turn the resilient Nora from Madonna to monster, the film deftly paints the protean nature of character. Never lapsing into mere indulgence, Desplechin explores the two main characters' uneasy relationships with siblings and parents. Jean-Paul Roussillon is terrific as Ismael's no-nonsense father, and Garrel delivers a powerful turn as Nora's father, whose final project carries in its galley pages a confession that detonates with a searing ambivalence. Starring Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric, Maurice Garrel and Jean-Paul Roussillon. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin. Written by Arnaud Desplechin and Roger Bohbot. Produced by Pascal Caucheteux. A Wellspring release. Drama. French-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 152 min