This is a pretty complex work of art, so be ready for 2.5 hours of moody melodrama and odd-ball comedy. There are two major story lines in this film, not the typical pattern of a central story line that has a few tangents. These two story lines have equal weight and are allowed to develop for over an hour independent of each other before the films allows the overlap of stories and characters.
In the first story, a beautiful and sophisticated woman, Nora, visits her retired university professor father and finds him very ill. Supported by the staff of the art gallery she manages as well as a sophisticated millionaire boyfriend, she begins to assist her father navigate the medical system. She contacts her junkie sister who begins to hitch hike to her father's side before he dies. She competently holds everything together until a hospice nurse begins to help as the old man goes down for the third time. The intense emotions, the odd dreams, the confrontive relationships full of old hurts, all reminded me of Ingmar Bergman's moody films.
In the second story, a delightfully eccentric musician is hospitalized in a mental hospital at the request of his rageful sister and some unknown party. Ismael, the musician, is comic, creative, resourceful, delightful, sensitive, eccentric, and oddly sexy. He does on a quest to find out who and why he was hositalized. He gets little help from his addicted lawyer or his cold psychiatrist, played by Catherine Deneuve. He continues to see his African Freudian psychotherapist, whom he has seen for 7 years, and we are treated to some wonderful scenes of psychotherapy gone astray. As Ismael runs amuck in the poorly supervised mental hospital, I was reminded of One Flew Oer the Cuckoo's Nest, however there is no mean Nurse Rachett, there are only poorly supervised mental patients eating each other's medications and smoking pot. Ismael is attracted to women in crisis, and finds a suicidal young woman in the hospital, which begins to give us a clue into the relationship he and Nora shared years ago.
We find that Nora was reared by her father to be proud, in control, and highly competent and self contained. Her first husband dies in an automobile accident while she is pregnant and yet she choses to have the baby and proudfully move forward with her life and career as a single mother. Only gradually do we learn that the story was not really as heroic or simple.
Ismael learns that through his delightful and loving family that his crazy rageful sister had him committed along with the business partner of his string quartet.
Nora's father dies before her sister Chloe arrives and when Chole arrives she is in a rage that he died before she arrives.
Gradually the tragic, moody, complicated story of Nora unfolds and we find that she murdered her first boyfriend and her father helped coach her testimony to cover up the incident. Later Nora gives her father enough morphine to kill his pain but also to overdose him and speed his death.
How do these two stories overlap? Well at one time Nora was married to Ismael, a time that you realize was very happy for them both. He was rescuing a woman in pain and she found a fresh soul to nourish her. Nora wishes for Ismael to adopt her son before she marries the sophisticated millionaire who has become her lover but not her emotional support. At first this makes no sense, but as we get to know the sane side of Ismael and the dark side of Nora, it begins to make all the sense in the world.
Nora's father has raised her to be totally emotionally competent and contained, to be the Queen, to meet her own needs, and yet the old man has grown to dispise his creation, to dispise her strength and ability to distance herself emotionally from the events at hand. He parts from this life mostly concerned with editing his last book yet he leaves a final painful parting shot in a crushingly cruel letter to Nora.
We now realize that Nora knows that she was reared by an intellectual sadist father and she wants her son to be adopted by a loving and insane man, Ismael, her second husband. Ismael declines this request, knowing that the 9 year old fellow is beyond his ability to emotionally support over the long term. Yet Ismael explains this to Nora's son in completely beautiful and loving and confirming ways when they spend a day in the natural history museum. Nora's father was internationally known for his brilliance, yet he was cruel to his daughters. Ismael, on the other hand, the runaway mental patient, is loving, caring for others, erotic, honest, playful, and creative.
In an odd way, the film reminds me of Charles Dicken's Great Expectations. In Dickens novel, the proudful Estalla has been emptionally reared to treat men cruely by Miss Havisham. Yet in the end, Estella does not marry Pip, the sweet boy that loves her, and selects to marry a man with whom she is not emotionally attached but also one she will not hurt. Estella and Nora have some traits in common.
You are probably tired of reading all this at this point. I need to tell you that I have only scratched the surface of this film. It is multi-layered with meanings hidden within meanings. It is exceptionally well made, well acted, well written, and beautifully filmed. It is complex and adult. No one is a villian, not one is a hero, they are what they are - living characters - which attests to the strength of this film.