Comment je me suis disputé... (ma vie sexuelle) (1996)



(director/writer: Arnaud Desplechin; screenwriter: Emmanuel Bourdieu; cinematographer: Éric Gautier; editors: Laurence Briaud/François Gedigier;cast: Thibault de Montalembert (Bob), Michel Vuillermoz (Frederic Rabier), Mathieu Amalric (Paul), Emmanuelle Devos (Esther), Marianne Denicourt (Sylvia), Emmanuel Salinger (Nathan), Chiara Mastroianni (Patricia), Jeanne Balibar (Valérie), Denis Podalydes (Jean-Jacques), Fabrice Desplechin (Ivan), Roland Amstutz (Prof. Chernov), Hélène Lapiower (Grouper); Runtime: 178; Why Not release; 1996-France)

“A rather compelling and superbly acted out black comedy.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Some might find this appealing film about Parisian twentysomethings who refuse to grow up, to be quite amusing. These troubled student-intellectual types love to talk and are charmingly neurotic, in a film that unjustifiably goes on for three hours but does so in a surprisingly breezy fashion. I would have more carefully edited this film, as there were too many scenes that were not impactful. What the film does just right is penetrate the students’ loneliness, the mind-games they play, their ideas about sex and love, their foolish need to lie, and the tribal nature of their relationships.

The antihero is the slightly built Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Almaric), who plays a natural charmer and vulnerable lover to the three girls (Esther, Sylvia and Valérie). They charmingly fall in love with him and are the cause of all his mental angst. At times, he seems to be merely exhibiting a case of childish pouting, unprepared to find out what he wants to do in life. These sort of devilish characters could be very attractive to the opposite sex, especially if they are handsome like he is and can turn on the charm to appear sensitive.

Paul is a 29-year-old assistant professor unhappy in his underpaid college position as a philosophy teacher, yet unable to finish his doctorate after failing to take his exams. This prevents him from becoming part of the permanent staff. He continues to be indecisive about what to do about his career and personal life. For the last 10-years he has been with his good-natured girlfriend Esther (Devos) whom he wants to dump even though he loves her and she is perfect for him, but he strangely thinks that she is holding him back. So he picks a fight with her. He thinks he loves another girl even more, Sylvia (Denicourt). Our antihero has broken up with her after a brief fling two years ago, but she happens to be going out now with his best and only friend Nathan (Salinger). Nathan does not know that he knew Sylvia before, which should tell you something about their close friendship. This really fine ensemble cast takes this meandering story and makes it into an absorbing melodrama, carefully scrutinizing their confusing lives.

Paul finally dumps Esther, after he meets a girl named Valérie (Jeanne Balibar) at a party given by an acquaintance, Jean-Jacques (Denis). Valérie is very demanding and suffers from being mentally unbalanced. Jeanne Balibar gives an eye-catching performance, one that adds just the right degree of spice to her role.

Soon our antihero wants to be with the evasive Patricia (Chiara Mastroianni), the naive girlfriend of the last two months of his cousin and roommate, Bob (Thibault de Montalembert). Bob, like Paul, has a confused concept about relationships, lightheartedly boasting about all his conquests.

The friends always seem to be together, which brings about some sexual tension. They falsely intellectualize about their relationships and prowl around the university in-crowd hang-outs, and behave in an irresponsible manner; they are not unlike many students around the world. Paul offers some colorful voiceovers explaining the confused situation he is in and reads the minds of the others he is involved with, offering his unique take on their problems.

When Paul is snubbed by his pretentious ex-friend Rabier (Vuillermoz), who becomes to his chagrin, the head of the epistemologydepartment at the university. These embarrassing snubs emphasize to Paul how he is really unsatisfied with how his life is going and this forces him to make another foolish decision, he decides to leave the university because his pride had been hurt. Paul goes to his university mentor for guidance, Professor Chernov (Roland), who turns out to be absent-minded and unable to offer sound advice to the reluctant scholar.

What the film fails to do, after one grows weary of all the charm it exudes, is provide any rationalizations or explanations for the split-ups and ongoing relationships. By the time the film ends we are just as much in the dark as we were in the beginning about Paul’s love life, except we now know who is doing what to the other. There are no shared intimacies, or greater emotional or intellectual depths explored. The film is still a rather compelling and superbly acted out black comedy, that has its glorious moments; but, it cannot go past its own facile limits it set for itself. But any film that can intelligently engage the philosophers Kundera and Kierkegaard and have an arrogant professor lose his pet monkey in the radiator of his dorm apartment, has my stamp of good-filmmaking.