Sexual Politics in Paris Without the Climax

Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument was lavishly praised by several discerning film critics when it played at last year’s New York Film Festival. But there was a disclaimer, inasmuch as no one could figure out how an almost three-hour-long film on the lives and loves of young Parisian academics would ever find an American distributor, much less great box-office success on even the rarefied art-house level. Because of time constraints, I missed the movie the first time around, and I was not looking forward to a three-hour expenditure of time with all the constraints still in place. I went, I saw, and I was richly exhilarated. No regrets at all.

Quite the contrary. As an academic and a Francophile, I completely identified with the film’s often farcical and yet subtle relationships between young men and women on the same cultural level. Consequently, I was never bored. Still, I think the film has problems besides its length with its targeted art-house audience. For starters, the title is foolishly misleading. There is some sex, of course, but the movie is hardly drenched with it. Nor are the women ever treated as bimbos and brainless sex objects. If anything, they are stronger and more perceptive than the men. Yet, the silly title implies a male narcissistic obsession about getting laid, which is not the central issue at stake.

Another problem is that the film is more novelistic than dramatic, never quite reaching a climax, but spreading its insights around several characters and shifting its point of view with impunity. Since most of the academics are involved with one branch of philosophy or another, there is a natural tendency to theorize endlessly rather than act abruptly or even instinctively. The mind plays games with the senses, and no one is ever quite sure what anything means exactly.

What is fresh and original about the film is its profound respect for academic achievement despite the familiar absurdities of academic careerism. In England and America particularly, novelists, dramatists and filmmakers cannot look at university life with a straight face, particularly when the faculty is the center of attention. I laugh as loudly as anyone at novelist David Lodge’s satiric thrusts at my undeniably pompous profession, but I am glad nonetheless that there is at least one young French filmmaker treating the subject seriously, though not with undue solemnity.

Paul (Mathieu Amalric) is introduced to us as a 29-year-old assistant professor of philosophy at a university in Paris. Paul never wanted to be a teacher, aspiring instead to a career in writing. He therefore has been blocked by his own indecision from completing the doctoral thesis that would make him a full professor. In the course of the film, we are given to understand that he is fully capable of writing the thesis, and, in so doing, making a distinguished contribution to his field of study. In Hawksian terms, he is good enough to deliver the goods. This in itself marks a welcome change from the anti-elitist conventions of the genre.

Paul’s love life is something else again. He has been involved with Esther, a translator, for 10 years, but he has wanted to terminate the relationship almost as long. Meanwhile, he has had a brief affair with his best friend’s girlfriend, Sylvia (Marianne Denicourt), but his conscience wouldn’t let him continue the betrayal. This is merely the beginning of a series of adventures in elective affinities swirling around a score of psyches, each with a distinctive approach to the problem of existence in a post-existential world.

The final problem facing My Sex Life at the American box office is the lack of any journalistic catch phrase like “New Wave” to give a cachet to a new generation of filmmakers, among them Mr. Desplechin, who deserves the kind of acclaim granted in the past to Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and the other luminaries of Cahiers du Cinéma and the Nouvelle Vague . Mr. Amalric bears a slight resemblance to Christian Slater, but in a role Hollywood would never consider suitable for Mr. Slater or anyone else. The lack of familiar names in the cast of My Sex Life does not indicate a lack of dazzling talent. The film is running at the Walter Reade Theater Sept. 17-26. It may be your last chance to see it.

Going Nowhere

Mark Pellington’s Going All the Way , from a screenplay by Dan Wakefield, based on his novel, reminds me in its title (and I seem to be obsessed by titles this week) of a line in Lanford Wilson’s 1970’s pre-AIDS play, The Fifth of July , in which Swoosie Kurtz, while taking a sunbath on the stage, suddenly blurts out: “What ever happened to going all the way?” The audience roared with laughter at this smug reference to the sexually fearful 50’s, so outmoded by the sexually adventurous 60’s and 70’s. I never read Dan Wakefield’s 1970 novel, which was described by the film’s director, Mr. Pellington, as “the seminal piece of literature that influenced me-my Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace .”

The story is set in the summer of 1954, and is centered on two returning Korean War veterans. The boys, both from Indianapolis, are hardly old friends though they went to high school together, nor army buddies since one stayed stateside while the other went overseas. Shy, introverted, class nerd Sonny Burns (Jeremy Davies) and brash, extroverted superjock Gunner Casselman (Ben Affleck) actually meet on the train home, with Casselman taking the initiative in the reunion because of his newfound interest in photography, which had been Sonny’s area of expertise in high school and ever since.

At home, Sonny takes every opportunity to escape from his oppressively conformist parents, and particularly his busybody mother, Alma Burns (Jill Clayburgh). Talk about monsters. Ms. Clayburgh is given the distorted camera treatment to make her look unbearably invasive and inane. Indeed, Mr. Pellington and Mr. Wakefield seem to have an aversion to mothers in general, since Gunner’s mother Nina (Lesley Ann Warren) is presented as a sluttish anti-Semite of the most virulent kind. To see two talented actresses such as Ms. Clayburgh and Ms. Warren reduced to period caricatures for the sake of a sub-Salinger male rite of passage through the provincial labyrinth of Indianapolis serves to prejudice me against the two buddies.

One is not surprised, therefore, to see Sonny dump his longtime girlfriend Buddy Porter (Amy Locane) even though she is infinitely more attractive than the supposedly more desirable sirens Sonny and Gunner gush over during their curious bonding. In the end, Sonny can find salvation only by following Gunner to New York, where it was all at in 1954. By a strange coincidence, I got out of the Army in 1954, and New York was my hometown, and I had no idea where anything was at, though I must confess that even in my darkest days, I was never tempted to try my luck in Indianapolis. There is a there here in New York. I wish I could say the same for Going All the Way .

The Myth of Sundance, No Explanation Needed

Bart Freundlich’s The Myth of Fingerprints has received excellent word of mouth since its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Hope Davis in a role reportedly different from that in The Daytrippers earlier this year. She turned out to be proficient again, but in a less satisfying dramatic context than that of Daytrippers . In fact, the whole cast is impressive in this depiction of a messy New England Thanksgiving family reunion in which people complain and don’t explain. Ms. Davis, Noah Wyle, Julianne Moore, Blythe Danner, Roy Scheider, Michael Vartan, Laurel Holloman, Arija Bareikis, Brian Kerwin and James Le Gros are as good an ensemble as you can find on the far side of Sundance and beyond.

Perhaps the actors were so good that writer-director Bart Freundlich didn’t think he had to write any clarifying or deepening dialogue to suggest the origins of their malaise. The actors went along with the idea that, like Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), they could express any emotion with just their eyes. What are words, after all, but superfluities in the presence of histrionic genius. Mr. Freundlich does have a way with actors, and actors have their way with him. The next time I hope he thinks of little me sitting in the audience without a clue as to why everyone is looking so disgustedly at everyone else.

That Guy Gives Good Gal

If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives a special award next year to best performance by a male actor playing a transsexual, the winner has to be Steven Mackintosh as the luminously dignified Kim Foyle in Richard Spence’s Different for Girls , from a screenplay by Tony Marchant. Rupert Graves as the “straight” lover is not bad, either. Nor is the film.

Sexual Politics in Paris Without the Climax