The essential post-New Wave comedy-drama follows an ensemble of restless Parisian academics falling in and out of careers and love.
n the winter of 2021, amidst yet another lockdown (Toronto, my city, has the pathetic distinction of instating the longest lockdown measures in the world), when I would have given my right arm for the chance to sit in a bar with a friend, I watched Arnaud Depleschin’s My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into the Argument (1996), an almost-epic about a group of young people in Paris and the primacy of our social lives. At the beginning of the film, grad student Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric) claims that he is living an unfulfilled existence, still waiting for his “life as a man to begin.” He can’t seem to finish his thesis and teaches to bide his time. He struggles to end things with his girlfriend, Esther (Emmanuelle Devos), a woman he has been seeing for ten years and trying to leave for almost as long. He can’t afford to move out of his cousin’s apartment, can’t stop hopping from one ill-advised love affair to the next, and is haunted by the reappearance of his professional rival, Frédéric Rabier (Michel Vuillermoz).
Paul’s increasingly desperate state of affairs unfurls at an unhurried but emotionally urgent pace. In an extended early section, he meets friends for drinks, goes to a dinner party, goes home with Esther, and ends up hunched over her unfinished work well into the night. Despite the rambling nature of the evening, the pace is quick and the insights piercing. At the bar, Paul confesses a mortifying secret. On the way to the party, in voice-over, he eviscerates his superficial relationship with Nathan (Emmanuel Salinger), his best friend whose partner, Sylvia (Marianne Denicourt), Paul is sleeping with. At the party, his friends openly lust after each other’s girlfriends. Back home, Paul has another blistering fight with Esther that fails to end in a breakup.
These scenes are built around conversation: affairs, pretentious colleagues, religion, and sex positions are discussed on sidewalks, in offices, and at convenience stores. Although Desplechin cites French auteurs like Maurice Pialat and Alain Renais as inspiration, My Sex Life… made me think most of Woody Allen’s prickliest films, like Husband’s and Wives (1992) or Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and the sexual politics and party hopping of Sex and the City (1998-2004).
Though frequently funny, My Sex Life… exhibits plenty of dread and unshakeable images. There is the wedding band Valérie (Jeanne Balibar) wears around her index finger despite being unmarried, an eccentricity that Nathan views as sinister—what does it mean to be tethered to no one? In a more comically disturbing sequence, Paul has been tasked to retrieve the stiff corpse of Rabier’s pet monkey, which is trapped behind the radiator in his office. It’s an act of sangfroid that should give Paul the upper hand over his pretentious rival, but on his morning run the next day, among bare trees and moody scrub and over the unsettling swell of the discordant score, he is struck with a paralyzing psychological terror. Shellshocked and unable to speak, Paul is eventually brought home by concerned passerby. But despite the Bergman-esque horror of the scene, a visit from Bob’s beautiful girlfriend, Patricia (Chiara Mastroianni), soon restores him, having been revived by his desire to sleep with her. Paul’s lasciviousness might be his downfall, but it also might be his saving grace.
The film’s scattered style and dramatic shifts in tone and timeline evince an undeniable naturalism, a dedication to representing lives governed by detours, disorder, and disappointments. Paul learns that careers are negotiations, friendships are mutable, and even our rivals and nemeses become indifferent to us and move on. We aren’t the main character after all.
In one scene, Paul goes shopping with his cousin Bob (Thibault de Montalembert) and reflects on how the two have come to form their identities in a negative image of the other. Bristling against their many similarities, they've each established a personal style of opposition, one wears polo shirts because the other wears button-downs, and vice-versa. It reminded me of a scene in Sheila Heti’s novel How Should A Person Be? in which the protagonist, named Sheila Heti, buys the same yellow dress as her best friend on a trip to Miami. She later learns that this has deeply troubled the friend, that her sense of self, which the dress represented in some small part, was being encroached on by their friendship. The friend writes in an email: “I really do need some of my own identity. And this is pretty simple and good for the head.”
How Should A Person Be? could easily be an alternate title for Despleschin’s film. Each character struggles with a sense of self that seems precarious, perpetually up for reassessment. Sylvia worries that her cruel streak is not a balm against her own vulnerability, but a genuine trait; Paul’s brother, having discovered the grace of God in the form of his teenage student, has decided to become a priest, despite his lack of genuine faith; and perhaps most of all, Esther, who has been with Paul since she was 17, and must now find a way to be alone at 26. Weeks after a brief reunion with Paul, Esther realizes her period is late. In her dorm room, on a single bed, she sits in a simple robe and opens a pregnancy test, unfolds the instructions, stares over the little plastic stick, and wonders about the result. This incredible scene, both mundane and momentous, is a testament to Despleschin’s sensitivity; although our protagonist sits in a bathrobe on a crummy single bed, a sweeping piece of music, like something out of a classical Hollywood drama, scores the scene.
Paul struggles against an image of himself of which he’s constantly falling short—he has not become a writer like Bob or moved up the ranks of academia like Rabier. His love affairs have worn him out and his rival claims not to remember him at all. But these humiliations ultimately rescue Paul from his solipsism: he is not failing an ideal, but rather outgrowing it. A year and a half ago, watching My Sex Life… filled me with an intense longing for the familiar and unexpected thrum of a night out. But rewatching it now, late in the summer when the season has begun to wear on me, I find myself longing for excuses to stay in. I’m hoping the skies will darken so it might rain and there won’t be anything to do but stay home and watch a long movie.
My Sex Life... Or How I Got into an Argument is available to stream on the Criterion Channel.
Gabrielle Marceau is a writer, critic, and editor of the film and pop culture journal In the Mood Magazine.