With Night of the Kings, Ivorian director Philippe Lacôte employs the classic framing device of the Scheherazade story — a prisoner whose salvation lies in the allure of their storytelling — in a film which mingles Shakespeare, modern dance, and the sketchy, fleeting tone of avant garde theater. The result is a gorgeous, elliptical drama centering around a handful of thinly sketched characters whose struggles feel secondary next to the film’s engagement with ideas like the role of narrative in structuring communities. Its emotional remove isn’t something to which I personally gravitate, but it succeeds admirably as a Brechtian method of keeping the audience’s attention fixed on the larger picture. If prison boss Blackbeard’s (Steve Tientcheu) slumped, bearlike physicality feels underutilized, Roman’s (Bakary Koné) dignified beauty and skittish nature left unexplored, neither does the film restrain its actors from doing the most they can with only their voices and expressions. Koné’s delivery in particular is a study in stammers and growing confidence, conveying real depth in every line.
Lacôte’s tableaux are likewise deeply textured and left open to interpretation. An exercise yard full of nude prisoners washing themselves and each other is at once alienating and intimate, tender and tense. The crowd which gathers by the soft golden light of kerosene lamps around Roman as he begins his story contains an almost overwhelming volume of overlapping, unexamined emotion tied to the communal importance of the prison’s rituals around storytelling, the succession struggle brewing around the dying Blackbeard and his would-be usurpers, the quiet backroom dalliances with transgender women whose own feelings and allegiances are left open to interpretation. When Lacôte shoots a group of men it seems less like the Kurosawa-esque method of magnifying an emotion than it does a way to split and fragment walls of human faces. These men live in an incoherent world, their shared lives ruled by arbitrary violence handed down from on high by prison guards, the stories which briefly unite them no sooner spoken than picked apart and argued over.
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The end result of all Lacôte’s synthesis of narrative forms and open-ended imagery is difficult to digest. Night of the Kings provides precious little in the way of an emotional foothold for its audience, in spite of Koné’s natural appeal as its protagonist, and its meandering pace further complicates an already ambitious structure, but for the careful student of film there is a wealth to pry out of its dense, breathless shots and strange air of frustrated communal yearning. There is a sense within the film of a great longing for some form to emerge, for some overarching story to make sense of all the lives hurled together in the prison known as La MACA. The key to Night of the Kings is that nothing ever does.