Maïwenn’s My King places the audience in the awkward and painful position of witnessing a dysfunctional relationship that has little hope of dissolving, inspiring us to recall those friends we’ve lectured who seem incapable of extricating themselves from a destructive situation. Georgio (Vincent Cassel) initially seems like an ideal male for someone, the sort of alpha that pop culture routinely tells men they should aspire to be if they’re to enjoy success with the ladies. Georgio is quick, confident, playful, and owns a restaurant and a chic apartment. Topping it off, he looks and sounds, well, like Vincent Cassel, one of the most sexually magnetic actors in cinema.
We understand, then, what Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) sees in Georgio, even as we sense a hustler in the latter who’s waiting to be unmasked. Georgio’s ego and empowerment insidiously complement Tony’s self-loathing, which Bercot and Maïwenn subtly indicate throughout the film. Georgio’s accustomed to fraternizing with models and glamorously debauched partygoers, while Tony is, to use her word, a “normal” woman, and she gets a charge from the notion that she’s been inexplicably picked by Georgio, embraced by a man she feels unlikely to embrace her. Never mind that Tony is attractive by conventional rubric, though she doesn’t see, or, more importantly, feel it.
When Georgio and Tony sleep together for the first time, Tony cries as their limbs entwine, asking Georgio if she’s too big, and Georgio soon discerns that she’s referring to her vagina. This is the sort of uncomfortably intimate moment that one rarely encounters in cinema, the kind of passage that indicates the vulnerable work of sex. Georgio handles the situation with aplomb, soothing her insecurities, telling Tony that any man who claims that about her must have a small dick. Cassel and Bercot are extraordinary throughout My King, but there’s something especially wonderful about their rapport in this scene. In it, they’re alive to one another, as people in the grips of mutual intoxication actually are, drunk on every physiological nuance of the other party, and Maïwenn is equally in tune with their poise and most minute movements. Even in coitus, Georgio can laugh at himself (something of which only a secure man is capable), making Tony feel at ease in giving herself to him, and her acquiescence to him as he takes lead of their relationship, both in and out of the bedroom, is an intense turn-on.
But Georgio is capable of only grand, impulsive romantic gestures. The maintenance of a relationship, held together by the glue of dependency, by the willingness to enjoy the dull as well as the electric moments, is of no interest to him, as he has a child’s constant need for exhilaration and attention. He’s forever partying and carousing, blaming Tony for logically resenting his antics, particularly after they marry and have a child. Georgio is the sort of guy who’ll announce to his friends that he’s staying in tonight with his wife and child, making a show of his generosity, only to concede that he might be tempted to go out if the wife allows it. Obviously, Georgio was always going to go out, but he must ensure that responsibility for his actions, whether he stays or goes, is placed on Tony’s shoulders.
Every gesture that Georgio makes toward Tony after their marriage is of this manipulative, double-edged variety, and Cassel conveys his character’s disorienting changes in emotional composure with revelatory fluidity. Georgio’s a narcissist and a psychological abuser, plying Tony with affection, then withholding it for effect, then threatening her, then showering her with pleasantries again when he feels that she might be finally tiring of his behavior. Georgio is so shameless that he somehow talks Tony into allowing him to keep a second apartment for “work”; when she inevitably catches him with another woman, he switches the topic to his previously unknown drug addiction. The relationship goes on in this pattern throughout the film. Tony, an attorney, says that she wants a man who shares her interests, and Georgio, deliberately missing her point and making an evasive joke of it, asks if all she needs is a man to read a book beside her under a tree.
It’s a mark of the film’s honesty that we grow to resent Tony nearly as much as we do Georgio, however uncomfortable that reaction may be for us. My King settles into a circular death march in which Georgio screws Tony over, over and over again, with her always forgiving him despite herself. What gives the film its stature is its understanding of this relationship as a dance of give and take, as a partnership in which Tony holds more power and agency than she appears to. And, in her way, she might be as superficial as Georgio. He’s an exhausting charlatan, incapable of even having lunch with his family without turning it into a shtick that allows him center stage, but Tony never grows exhausted with him. In a resonant twist, their eventual divorce only rejuvenates the relationship, giving Georgio the illusion of freedom that he needs, and Tony the pretense of authority that she craves.
Maïwenn fashions a bracing film about co-dependency, capturing the erotic contours of subservience and flattery—of feeling as if you’re effacing yourself for someone for a vaguely defined higher cause, enabling abuse to continue into eternity. My King feels as if it comes from a deeply personal place, understanding a love that can be truly described as a drug.