The story of ''Kings and Queen," French director Arnaud Desplechin's great big and very good new movie, goes like this: Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), the manager of a Parisian art gallery, has her life interrupted when her father, Louis (Maurice Garrel), is diagnosed with a terminal disease.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the movie, Nora's former husband, a tax-burdened intellectual named Ismaël (Mathieu Amalric), is carted off to a mental institution. There he soon stops trying to figure who arranged his stay and starts sexing up another, more fragile patient. Nora will get around to asking Ismaël to adopt her son from a previous relationship. And a version of ''Moon River" will play a couple of times.
But actually, the story of ''Kings and Queen" doesn't go like this at all. The film is a tower of literary and cinematic references, tangential yet somehow essential characters, and one fantastic performance after another. It's a simple movie yet is anything but.
''Kings and Queen" is about a grieving daughter and her nutty ex as much as Ralph Ellison's ''Invisible Man" is about a fellow nobody can see.
Written by Desplechin and Roger Bohbot, the film is a soap opera that through layering and texture is made into something rich, strange, and unforgettable. Here conventional reality has been replaced with gritty magic realism. Nora has waking dreams of her tragically dead ex-boyfriend, and her memories of him and his death are played as theater. Suddenly the Ibsen character whose name she shares comes into focus.
Would-be-routine encounters soar into the unexpected. In somebody else's movie, the scene when the two gentlemen from the asylum (the credits list them as Prospero and Caliban) take Ismaël away would last a few minutes from door knock to check-in. In Desplechin's, the scene is a calamitous aria in which Ismaël goes from insulted to confused to infuriated. Once admitted, he is required to see Madame Vasset (Catherine Deneuve), the unflappable hospital shrink, who asks such questions as ''How do you define the soul?" and who then practically floats away on a cloud of cigarette smoke.
The film's two threads seem eager to come to some kind of hopeful synthesis in time for an ending. To be reductive, Ismaël's sections are the comedy, Nora's are the drama. Amalric and Devos, who both appeared in Desplechin's 1996 film, ''My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument," go to great lengths to inhabit the emotional universe of the filmmaker's ideas.
He's the existential clown, pensive in scenes with Elsa Wolliaston, who plays Ismaël's psychoanalyst; manic with Magali Woch, who plays the self-destructive patient of whom he takes advantage; firm with the delightful Hippolyte Girardot, who plays Ismaël's druggy lawyer; and dopey with Noémie Lvovsky, who's terrific as Ismaël's volcanically miffed sister.
While Amalric is best at physical extremes (he even does a stirring break-dance routine), Devos's performance is a quiet storm of wonder, grief, wistfulness, rapture, and regret -- and in one scene at a hospital, all of these seem to surface at once.
Devos is a unique screen presence, never looking the same from film to film and rarely seeming as radiant as she does here. Her unusual features are framed and photographed to make her look like a classic beauty -- like the queen of the title or like Deneuve, though even that great actress has never emptied herself as completely as Devos does here.
Neither Ismaël nor Nora is meant to be likable. Nora, in particular, engages in some fascinatingly self-serving behavior.
But the film is about the fits and flights into which families can send a person or, for that matter, a story line. Desplechin's artistic philosophy amounts to an absolute distrust of narrative filmmaking.
While the film's library load of references flirts with pretentiousness, ultimately it serves as ballast against frivolity. Allusions to the myth of Leda and Zeus's assault of her suggest the increasing toxicity between Nora and her father -- the most harmless bonds can cause such ugliness -- but Desplechin never lets himself get carried away by such literary touches. Instead, his eye is always on the characters.
In its adherence to the quirks and ambitions of its maker, ''Kings and Queen" achieves a sort of epic status. The film is as ambitious as anything Ridley Scott attempts in ''Kingdom of Heaven" and suggests a galaxy as complex as George Lucas's.
But Desplechin's achievement seems more singular. He's made an emotional blockbuster.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.