If any woman wants confirmation that what counts above all is being in love with your husband, no matter how philandering, unpredictable and domineering he is, and that everything else -- your career, values, social concerns -- is secondary, watching Maïwenn's latest film Mon Roi will do the trick. Set in contemporary France--which might as well be the 1950s -- the film features a woman, Tony, who is madly in love with her charismatic husband Georgio, her "king", and is only fulfilled when making love or laughing with him: scenes of which are abundant in the film, to the point of making this character seem a bit of a bimbo.
Supposedly Tony (played by the beautiful Emmanuelle Bercot) is a lawyer, but we never hear her discuss her work, nor does she seem to do any. In fact, a career opportunity that comes late in the movie (to defend a wealthy CEO who has murdered his wife, a client Tony is thrilled to defend: no critic she to patriarchal abuse) takes us by surprise, as Tony's life seems that of a stay-at-home dependent wife.
A paean to the irresistible pull of love, Mon Roi, which has received rave reviews, is not lacking in charming and exuberant moments We watch the couple laugh, joke, make love, whisper fondly, and enjoy a joie de vivre spirit: a testimony to true love. One of the most successful scenes is the wedding of this couple, with a sumptuous cake and colorful balloons flying in the air, while a crowd of young upper class wedding partyers boisterously cheer. And the Roi, a successful restauranteer, does have his allure as the Prince of every Cinderella's dreams: he comes with a gorgeous mod apartment, boasting huge closets of designer closets; he offers his sexy wife a splendid gold watch; he suggests a weekend in Marrakesh in the Mamounia, the most luxurious hotel in Morocco. While at one point there is a risk that he might lose some wealth through debt, no worries, two scenes later he has his fortunes back. The man -- despite problems with drugs, women, alcohol -- is always a winner.
But this marriage does wear on our suffering heroine, who is portrayed as a victim for the bulk of the film. Georgio defines the terms of their relationship: his woman can just follow his orders. He makes it a rule that he can consort, when and where he wants, with his ex-girlfriend; he gives their newborn child a name ("Sinbad" as in sailor) that goes against his wife's wishes; he suddenly moves out, without telling his wife, and buys an apartment for himself (he is that rich), where his wife can "visit".
To each offensive move by her King (played with debonair style by French star Vincent Cassel), Tony responds with stunned tearful compliance. But then she rebels. Her rebellion consists in throwing tantrums and screaming drunk, confirming yet another female stereotype, that of the Hysterical Woman, a 'malady' that was in vogue in the Victorian period as the only mode for upper class repressed women to express themselves. Apparently, if one can judge by this film, hysteria is still the only viable mode of expression for oppressed upper-class women in twentieth-first century France.
The other conventional choice for women in a patriarchal deadlock is suicide. This film indeed begins -- in the future -- with an attempt at self-destruction. Our protagonist, in despair, skis down a dangerous slope....and (plot spoiler!) breaks her leg. We are in great suspense about how she will heal that fracture as the film flashes backwards and forwards between her 10 year relationship with Georgio and her internship in a swank rehabilitation center on the sea. The suspense is high. In this upper-class milieu, a leg broken in a skiing accident is one of the greatest problems one can face.
Unfortunately, Tony's efforts to "learn how to walk" and reach liberation -- for supposedly the trajectory of this film is towards liberation -- are remarkably jejune compared to those of other great heroines of film, such as Julie in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, Ada in Jane Campion's The Piano or Lynn Ramsay's Morvern Collar. What Tony's evolution consists of is replacing her hedonist comradery with her husband's chic fashion friends with a group of Arab and Black patients of a lower class milieu: an attempt of the director, it seems, to give a dash of political correctness to the story. Instead of scenes of driving rollickingly happy in a jaguar, we now have scenes of the woman gaily cruising with boys who speak with thick North African accents and slang and dance to Arabic music, who teach her that she can laugh with someone else besides her husband and even slum with the locals.
The problem is that the flash-backs to oppression and flash-forwards to liberation become confusing at points, so it becomes a bit murky whether this woman does ever liberate herself. It is also questionable whether a few knee stretches on physical therapy machines are really enough to lead to a ground-shaking new identity. Tony's last look in the film (plot spoiler) is -- predictably enough -- one of tender adoration towards her husband.
Maïwenn's film is a very important film -- but not for the reason noted in the rave reviews that followed the Cannes premiere (which celebrate the film for its "fresh vivacity" and "immersive emotions"). It serves most as a warning: a warning not to be the kind of woman portrayed in the film, addicted to a patriarchal abusive king, to the point of forgetting one's own personhood. Several female theater goers sympathetic to the film mentioned it reminded them of their own (past) relationships, that this is "a female issue" still very much alive for women today.
I asked Maïwenn if this feminist perspective was her intention: if she herself thought that addiction to a suffering love relationship with an abusive man was a particularly female problem.
She responded: "I completely disagree with you. The woman character is addicted to the man, just like he is addicted to the woman. Both men and women experience the same thing, the same addiction to the other, in different forms."
As for this film doing anything to enlighten us on women's issues, her response was more passionate:
"Women's issues! Women, women, women. That's all people talk about now. Next year it will be the Moroccans."
One final question: Was it a deliberate choice on the part of the director to make a female lead who has absolutely nothing in her head -- no values or interests -- besides her passion for her man?
"I had so much to tell about their relationship -- the 10 years of the couple -- that I just did not have time to add scenes showing other aspects of my characters' lives, such as Tony's relationship to her friends, family, money....career."
I was not surprised that career came last.