Siren song, swan song

I saw French people, and I saw people French.

Paul, the fetal-looking hero of My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into an Argument,does everything just the way a good Parisian intellectual should. So when he remembers his childhood, he's not sitting on the can, or walking down the street, or drinking a glass of milk. He's on his analyst's worn tapestry couch. As he speaks, we flash back from the Left Bank of the present to Paul, age 9, in his parents' house, penning "The History of My Life." Although his childish goal was to write a "Stevenson-like adventure story," instead he found himself writing a novel about his family and his day-to-day life. "To imagine these adventures," he recalls from the oh-so-lofty vantage point of his twenties, "I had to wring the neck of my own life." Even as a child, he was frustrated at being stuck in the ordinary. "I prayed that disaster would strike."

My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into An Argument

directed by Arnaud Desplechin

starring Mathieu Amalric

plays 3/12-15 at the Casbah Cinema

Twilight

directed by Robert Benton

starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman

now playing

My Sex Life describes in painstaking detail—and three hours of it, mind you—the project of youth: the unfulfillable desire to rise above the ordinary. Twentysomething Paul (played by Mathieu Amalric, who won a 1996 Best Newcomer Cesar for the role) is paralyzed by his acute perception of his own unique intelligence—what we Americans might call his "specialness." He's overwhelmed by an excess of choice. Though he's a gifted assistant professor, he can't finish his dissertation. Though he's patently ashamed of her, he can't break up with Esther, his girlfriend of 10 years. Though he's in love with the cool Sylvia, she's his best friend's girlfriend. The film bobs along with him among these non-events, which he perceives sometimes as meaningless ripples, and sometimes as huge waves poised to break over his frail little boat of a self.

Somewhere along the way, the movie becomes a book—an extension of the young boy's novel. It's talky, it's long, you want to consume snacks at the same time that you consume it—clearly it owes as much to Proust as it does to Rohmer. And while it's a bildungsroman about Paul, it's also by Paul, so clearly is he the fictional manifestation of young director Arnaud Desplechin.

To badly misquote a saying I'm only marginally sure comes from Hemingway, "When a writer starts out, he has all the fun and the reader has none. As the writer goes on and improves, he has no fun and the reader has all the fun." You'd think Desplechin's film, youthful as it is in both subject matter and the self-indulgent excesses of length, wouldn't be much fun for the "reader." But the director has a rich, almost lascivious eye for detail as he takes in the lovely group of women Paul gets mixed up with. This is truly a boy's-eye-view, and Desplechin isn't too worried about political correctness. He and his camera ogle happily away at thighs and crotches and breasts. What should be gratuitous is instead a satisfying expression of Paul's horn-dogged perspective.

The film is made even more engaging by the way Desplechin gently satirizes Paul's intellectual milieu. A pretentious colleague of Paul's has written a book called, simply, My Philosophy. Paul has a nervous breakdown, frozen in a park among hostile trees, that's like a parody of the climactic scene in Sartre's Nausea. And there's both irony and sincerity in the characters' unending application of intellect to their relationships. They know it doesn't work, but they can't stop. "But that's just what he couldn't do," says the narrator, about Paul. "Stop thinking." Ah, youth.

That quote from Hemingway (or whomever—details, details) perfectly describes the mastery at work in the new Paul Newman movie, Twilight. Here, the audience has all the fun. This is a film that's aged to perfection in its subject matter and the tight ironies of its script. The film is directed by Robert Benton, who worked with Newman and co-writer Richard Russo in the equally understated Nobody's Fool. Benton sets his film in gleaming contemporary LA palaces, and then fills those houses—those trophies that the rich get for living a long time and screwing over a lot of people—with an unapologetically jaded, fading cast of characters. Newman is a burnt-out private investigator. Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon play a couple of former Hollywood stars whose past is catching up with them. And James Garner plays an eternal bachelor, with the only true bachelor pad left in the free world. These people seem defined by their architecture. It's the armor they have pulled up around them over the years. Benton, with a wiliness borne of experience, sketches in his characters, letting their houses speak for themselves. And in the end, one character's house literally gives away the whole show.

 
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