November 7, 2005
How I Got Into an Argument... (My Sex Life), 1996
Arnaud Desplechin's films may be anarchic and free-formed, but they are never without a sense of internal logic and intelligent construction. This liberating sense of organic structure is particularly evident in the opening sequence of How I Got Into an Argument... (My Sex Life): a napping assistant professor and seemingly perennial doctoral candidate, Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric), awakened by a ray of light streaming through the window and the sound of remodeling of an adjacent faculty office that is being prepared for the arrival of the new department head of epistemology, emerges from a haze of drowsiness and construction dust to witness the dramatic (and literal) unmasking of a shiny new placard that reveals the name of a former graduate school colleague and estranged friend Frédéric Rabier (Michel Vuillermoz). This sequence proves to be a terse encapsulation of the nearly three hours of painstakingly observed human comedy that unfolds as the film chronicles the trajectory of Paul's emotional and existential awakening after (perhaps temporarily) breaking up with his long-term girlfriend Esther (Emmanuelle Devos), listening to his cousin Bob's (Thibault de Montalembert) nitpicking of his lover Patricia's (Chiara Mastroianni) idiosyncrasies, and flirting with an unsustainable affair involving the charming, but mercurial Valérie (Jeanne Balibar), the live-in lover of his over-analytical, but unmotivated friend Jean-Jacques (Denis Podalydès). Still nursing an unreconciled wound over an ill-fated love affair with the enigmatic Sylvia (Marianne Denicourt), who has since moved on - and moved in - with his colleague and friend Nathan (Emmanuel Salinger), Paul's obsession metastasizes in the form of his self-perceived rivalry - and fixation over unraveling the cause of the rupture - with his erstwhile friend, colleague, and co-author Frédéric. At the core of Paul's neurotic preoccupation is the underlying egocentrism of human nature that attempts to define the puzzle of all relationships through the pre-formed contours of our own cognition and need for validation. It is this pensive insecurity and melancholic romanticism that inevitably makes Desplechin's films (and in particular, this one) so attractive and endearing: the realization of our own pathological need to believe that somehow, in that however brief moment of connection, we have indelibly touched the life of another - that object of desire or kindred spirit - and consequently disrupted the eternal order of things and irreparably altered the very structure of its soul.