I’m not particularly fond of the recent trend in Francophonic cinema of break up movies where beautiful couples spend two hours screaming at each other, making their lives living hells. They’re practically Xavier Dolan’s bread-and-butter. But I find them exhausting, draining, and downright unpleasant. What’s worse, they’ve all begun to dissolve into one super-movie in my mind. I’m not saying there can’t be a time or place for them, but recently it seems like they’re the popular go-to for filmmakers eager to establish themselves on the festival circuit. No matter how much I may like one here or there—I’m particularly fond of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) and Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts (2014, shot in English but technically Italian)—I could take or leave the genre as a whole.
Maïwenn’s My King (2015) follows this pattern quite closely. It charts the romance, marriage, break-up, and divorce of high-powered lawyer Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) and ex-lothario restauranteur Georgio (Vincent Cassell). At first their relationship goes smoothly: they like each other, have good sex, dream about the future. But after one of Georgio’s old flames attempts suicide after he marries Tony, their feelings begin to spoil and rot. Feeling guilty, Georgio essentially marries the ex-girlfriend, caring for her full-time. He moves out of their house. When Tony gives birth to their son, he unilaterally gives him the preposterous name “Simbad” and declares the ex-girlfriend his “auntie.” And while Georgio buys a new apartment stocked with a vineyard’s worth of wine, Tony has all her furniture seized by repo men to pay off his outstanding debts. Tony begins to break down. She attempts suicide, demands a divorce, and humiliates him at a party by revealing his alcoholism and drug addition to his friends.
The film is told in flashbacks from the perspective of Tony as she undergoes physical therapy to rehabilitate her knee from a nasty ski injury. The metaphor is too obvious to miss: Tony reconstructs herself physically while mentally reconstructing the shattered pieces of her private life. This proved a wise decision as it created a sense of reflective detachment from even the most horrific moments of cruelty from their relationship. Bercot won the 2015 Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why. She strips herself bare, both figuratively and literally. We join her in the agony of therapy, the ruddy lusts of new love, the strain of pregnancy, the annihilation of mental well-being. Cassell also gives a tremendous performance, creating a character we genuinely can’t figure out. He can be charming at one moment, hostile the next. But we never get the sense he’s deliberately cruel or abusive.
I can’t deny the merits of My King. But I stand by my assessment of this kind of movie. It’s difficult to watch for all its meanness and destructive histrionics. I’ve read that it was based in large part on Maïwenn’s relationship with real estate developer Jean-Yves Le Fur—even the suicidal ex-girlfriend had a real-life parallel. I hope that this film has given Maïwenn some sense of closure. I’m curious to see what else she can do outside the realm of gorgeous straight people yelling at each other.