Kings & Queen director hopes to destroy Jewish and French stereotypes

The thoughtful French director Arnaud Desplechin has often featured Jewish characters in his films. For a non-Jewish filmmaker, that feels like an overt political statement, especially in these days of rising anti-Semitism in France.

Desplechin, whose latest ambitious work, “Kings & Queen,” features a Sephardic drug-abusing attorney among its colorful supporting characters, readily allows that he’s trying to puncture the myth of French people as homogenous white Catholics.

“Perhaps it’s my memories of Jean Renoir films, where you can’t say which character is Jewish or not,” the soft-spoken filmmaker says during a recent visit to present his film at the San Francisco International Film Festival. “There is a diversity that you can see in American films, but not in that many French films.”

Renoir’s masterpieces, “Grand Illusion” and “Rules of the Game,” featured the elegant Marcel Dalio playing generous, well-off Jewish men. Desplechin’s 1992 tour de force, “La Sentinelle,” boasted a key Jewish character, while “Esther Kahn” — which the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival showed in 2001 — centered on a working-class Jewish woman who aspires to the stage in late19th-century London.

“Kings and Queens” relates the parallel tales of a troubled musician and a happy gallery manager. It was named the best film of last year by a top French critics’ group; it opens Friday, June 3, at the Lumiere Theater in San Francisco.

There are always some moviegoers who view flawed Jewish characters as negative portrayals that reflect badly on the entire tribe. Admittedly, it is shocking in “Kings & Queen” to see a man who has spearheaded the raid on a mental institution’s pharmacy later sporting a yarmulke.

That would be Mr. Mamanne (played by Hippolyte Girardot), who is both attorney and friend to the main male character, a volatile, voluble violinist named Ishmael who spends most of the film in said mental institution.

Desplechin, who speaks fluent, accented English, recalls Girardot’s analysis of the characters’ relationship.

“What would be the definition of friendship? To admire, instead of being admired. One has a boring job, the other is an artist. They are so different, and they love to admire the other one. They love that gap.”

The script didn’t provide Mamanne with a yarmulke. That was Girardot’s inspiration — especially for a scene that takes place on the Shabbat.

“I think it’s a good point that this lawyer, even if he’s sometimes extreme and he’s involved with drugs, on Saturday he respects the law,” Desplechin muses. He adds with a chuckle, “there are laws that you can’t [mess] around with.”

Those would be the laws of God, of course. The laws of men, to Mamanne, are simply malleable guidelines.

Desplechin grew up in a town on the Belgian border, but he has lived the cosmopolitan life in Paris for many years. A gentle man whose films are a unique blend of philosophy, wit and wondrously unpredictable events, he is both a realist and an optimist when it comes to his country.

“Let’s be generous and say for two years the situation is slightly better,” he says about the tide of anti-Semitism. “But I share with the American people that worry about the relationship of French and Jewishness.”

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.