We’ve all known couples like this. Maybe he’s a hopeless playboy—charming, sure, but also unreliable, unwilling to commit. And she’s a smart woman, except when it comes to him, failing to see his unworthiness as a mate because she simply can’t get enough of him. In real life, if you’re friends with this sort of couple, it can be hard to know what to do: They probably shouldn’t be together, and lord knows they break up and get back together repeatedly, but saying anything won’t do any good. You’re just grateful you’re not in one of those relationships yourself.
The ambition and the limitation of the French drama Mon Roi is that it’s all about one of those couples, and filmmaker Maïwenn refuses to judge the lovers—even indulging their rollercoaster of a relationship. The results are mixed, but on the whole this is an honorable, nervy attempt to get inside the head of a woman who really, really doesn’t need her headache of a husband—except, of course, she desperately does.
Mon Roi is structured as a series of extended flashbacks. Attorney Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) has suffered serious injuries while downhill skiing, and as she goes through months-long rehab to regain the use of her right leg, her mind drifts back to the most important, difficult, draining relationship of her life. That would be with Georgio (Vincent Cassel), a restaurateur and night owl whom she met years earlier in a club, a flirty rapport established instantly. (Actually, they’d met before that—back when she was a bartender and he was a regular—but he doesn’t remember.)
Soon, they’re involved in a passionate relationship, and the early stretches of Mon Roi lay out their courtship, emphasizing what an almost annoyingly happy couple they once were. Again, Tony and Georgio are like some couples we all know: the kind so infatuated with and charmed by one another that it can get grating. But those blissful early months of dating escalate quickly, with Georgio, who’s used to dating models, insisting that he wants to have a baby with the more intelligent and mature Tony. They leap before they look, as Tony quickly gets pregnant and a wedding is hastily arranged. But as a sign of their romantic self-absorption, they refuse to wear rings, suggesting their refusal to abide by the stifling conventions of marriage.
As we see these flashbacks, Tony in the present is going through her painful rehabilitation while making friends with her fellow patients. But that story isn’t the one that hooks us: We’re more invested in Tony and Georgio, their bond, and how it went wrong. (Keeping plot details vague, I’ll simply say that Georgio has a harder time abandoning his womanizing bachelor past than he thought.) But Tony can’t simply cut the cord with this man—not only do they have a baby on the way, but she feels deeply connected to him. On one hand, it’s easy to understand her attraction to this handsome, debonair man, but on the other, we realize that maybe her brother (a wonderfully deadpan Louis Garrel) was right all along: Georgio’s a cad, he’s always going to be a cad, and she’s too bright and successful to waste her time with someone like him.
It’s around this point in Mon Roi where many audience members will start having issues with Maïwenn’s depiction of this central couple. The filmmaker clearly paints Georgio as a well-meaning but deeply flawed man—he’s got a few secrets that will only further sour our assessment of him—but she rarely shows Tony standing up for herself or recognizing that she needs out of this relationship. Instead, Maïwenn wants to explore the sort of toxic long-term relationship that can ensnare even the sanest, wisest people. If this were a Hollywood movie, studio executives would demand that Tony be a proactive, empowered character who wises up about Georgio. But Mon Roi defiantly isn’t Hollywood, instead seeking to understand how luckless individuals stuck in on-again/off-again relationships remain trapped.
Maïwenn previously made Polisse, a volatile, raw drama about police officers targeting child molesters, which mixed action, romance and melodrama. Mon Roi is no less impetuous and messy, and Maïwenn is very content to force us to sit with her characters’ impossible love affair. It’s an overlong, exasperating movie, and it’s meant to be, the filmmaker wanting viewers to feel Tony’s internal tug-of-war between reason and emotion.
That’s a daring conceit, and for the most part it succeeds. Still, one can’t help but get frustrated with Tony, who keeps finding excuses to forgive her no-good man. Then again, it helps that he’s played by Cassel, who turns up the charisma, smiling that sexy smile of his and practically waltzing through the film on Georgio’s what-me-worry sunniness. Yes, he’s a cad, but Cassel always hints at the more honorable man that’s there below the surface. Plenty of people stay in bad relationships because they believe they can “help” or “save” the other person, and Georgio is a classic case of the man who seems savable. Half the time, we think he has it in him to be a better husband to Tony. The other half, we wonder why she’s too blind to see the truth in front of her.
If Cassel is the film’s gregarious center, Mon Roi is nonetheless Tony’s story. Bercot has a challenging role—she has to dramatize passivity—and she doesn’t always translate Tony’s rationalizing into something more compelling. There is a part of this film that’s meant to be unknowable—why good people end up with bad people—but, then again, the same thing happens in the world around us. Just because we don’t enjoy being reminded of that fact during a movie doesn’t mean we can wish that sad, essential truth away.
Writers: Maïwenn, Etienne Comar
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Bercot, Louis Garrel, Isild Le Besco, Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin
Release Date: Screening in Competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.