MY SEX LIFE, OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT...
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin
Written by Despechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu
Starring Matthieu Amalric, Emannuelle Devos, Emmanuel Salinger, Jeanne Balibar and Marianne Denicourt
Distributed by Zeitgeist Films
The Francophilia of '50s and '60s American film culture may have fallen out of fashion, but traces remain. Although French films as important as Leos Carax' 1991 LES AMANTS DE PONT NEUF and Patricia Mazuy's 1994 TRAVOLTA AND ME remain unreleased here, we are getting a chance to see both of Arnaud Desplechin's features, the flawed but fascinating 1996 MY SEX LIFE, OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT... and the 1992 spy film LA SENTINELLE, which will be released this winter. (Desplechin also directed the hour-long 1991 La Vie des Morts.) One must be thankful for small favors. Were Desplechin Taiwanese, South Korean or even Eastern European , MY SEX LIFE, which spends three hours tracking a year in the life of 29-year-old philosophy teacher Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric), would have a snowball's chance in hell of attracting an American distributor.
As critic Kent Jones put it in a recent issue of FILM COMMENT, "the strongest current in modern French cinema has been the imagination of life from a more atomized and humanly scaled perspective." This current is easily lost in translation, especially given the relative American obscurity of the late Jean Eustache, whose 1973 masterpiece TTHE MOTHER AND THE WHORE often seems to be the model for Desplechin's film. Unabashedly slow and talky, "typically French" to the core, MY SEX LIFE is bound to be simultaneously overrated and underrated.Context is everything: next to an American filmmaker like Kevin Smith, whose CHASING AMY plunges into difficult emotional territory with good intentions and a dreadful clumsiness, Desplechin looks like a master. However, MY SEX LIFE can't help but seem pretty lite next to the obsessive, confessional intensity of Eustache's work.
It's not easy to summarize the narrative of MY SEX LIFE in a few lines. When it begins (on New Year's Eve), Paul is reluctantly teaching philosophy, avoiding work on his thesis and considering breaking up with his girlfriend Esther (Emanuelle Devos,) an aspiring translator with whom he's had an unhappy 10-year relationship. He finally does dump her in May, not before having a fling with Sylvia (Marianne Denicourt,) who's also going out with his best friend Nathan (Emmanuel Salinger.) Eventually, he winds up with the very difficult Valerie (Jeanne Balibar.) Meanwhile, Paul's old friend and current enemy Frederic Rabier, a vacuous but popular epistemologist who queries his pet monkey about the existence of its soul and tosses off profundities like "Van Gogh is a total mindfuck!," takes an office down the hall from Paul's. This description leaves a fair amount out: key events, especially the writing of Paul's thesis, happen offscreen. The narrative develops slowly, with plenty of room for digressions, overlaps and hesitations. We go from Point A to Point E, not Point A to Point Z. Character development and a precise sense of milieu take the place of narrative momentum.
Paul's quarrel with Rabier comes close to the point of obsession, although Rabier can barely bring himself to acknowledge Paul's presence, much less that the two were once friends. It's clear that Rabier is a sort of a warped alter ego. However, almost all of the film's male characters seem like alter egos of one sort or another: Nathan, Paul's cousin and roommate Bob (Thibault de Montalambert), and his friend Ivan, a faithless aspiring priest (played by the director's brother Fabrice,) share the same propensity to talk about their problems endlessly as an alternative to doing something about them. Even Paul's summer attack of agoraphobia rhymes with the fear of his elderly advisor, Professor Chernov (Roland Amstutz), that his forgetfulness is an early sign of Alzheimer's.
When the three hours are up, Paul is thirty. His thesis is finished and ready for publication. After an embarrassing encounter with Rabier and a sort of reconciliation with Sylvia and Esther, he's on the road to recovery from a near-fatal case of self-absorption. Point E has been reached. We're told, via an omniscient male narrator, that "Sylvia's words ('I changed you') restored Esther to Paul, and Paul to the world. Of course he could know others, because others had changed him." The narrator is someone I haven't mentioned yet, although he plays a fairly large role in MY SEX LIFE: a dry, analytical sort who sounds remarkably like an older, more detached version of Paul - another alter ego, in short. Desplechin and Bourdieu's dialogue is often brilliant, but they falter when it comes time to depict (or even suggest) a world outside this milieu. An excellent depiction of paralysis and self-absorption, the film doesn't quite ring true when it comes time to imagine an alternative. The diagnosis is also a symptom.