Grad Canyon

Arnaud Desplechin, Comment je me suis disputé… (Ma vie sexuelle) (My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument), 1996, 35 mm, color, sound, 178 minutes. Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric).

IT HAS TO BE the best movie title ever: My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument or, as it was reversed in the original French release, Comment je me suis disputé… (Ma vie sexuelle). But any way you parse it, the film to which the title belongs—Arnaud Desplechin’s second feature, released in 1996 and currently available only in a dark and wan DVD—is a delayed coming-of-age masterpiece and one of the great French post–New Wave films. Desplechin has revisited the central narrative of My Sex Life—Paul Dedalus’s tortured first love affair with the unsuitable Esther—in the 2015 My Golden Years, which will be released stateside in the spring. It would be splendid if My Sex Life were revived at the same time, or better yet, if some canny distributer would bring them out as a BluRay set.

My Golden Years is a cinematically bravura, emotionally rich memory piece about the formative years of a character who might be the director’s alter ego. My Sex Life, on the other hand, is fueled by anticipation. Immersive, wildly romantic (the first sound you hear is a half-second arpeggio straight out of Vertigo), recklessly disorganized, and epic in length, it is the work of a young filmmaker looking at a heterosexual, bed-hopping, near penniless clique of postgraduate Parisians who are not much younger than he was at the time.

At the center is Paul (Mathieu Amalric, looking like a dead ringer for Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network)—brilliant, self-involved, febrile, and terrified of commitment. Paul is five years late finishing his dissertation. Consequently, he doesn’t earn enough money through his adjunct teaching gig to afford his own apartment, which means he has never been able to live with Esther (Emmanuelle Devos), his girlfriend of ten years with whom he’s trying to break up. Paul’s problems are nothing if not overdetermined, and that includes his festering feud with a glib former classmate, Frédéric Rabier (Michel Vuillermoz), who is now the head of the philosophy department where Paul teaches. Frédéric shows up walking hand in hand with a monkey. Bad things happen to the monkey, generating a hilarious depiction of privilege in academia that would be farcical if it weren’t so true to form.

My Sex Life is filled with just such show-stopping set pieces: Paul’s paralyzing panic attack while walking in the woods, the bare branches dotted with ominous bird nests, the ambient music sounding suddenly like Stravinsky; Esther in the shower, watching her menstrual blood flow down the drain, her sudden awareness of her own agency upending the images of the victimized Marion in Psycho and the titular Carrie, the incarnation of the return of the repressed. Paul’s attempts to end his relationship with Esther involve him in guilt-producing affairs with Sylvia (Marianne Denicourt) and Valérie (Jeanne Balibar), the girlfriends respectively of his best friend and his cousin. Sex scenes abound, all of them fast and discreet. Conversations about sex make even more of an impression. In particular, Paul’s admission that what he loves more than anything is putting his hand into a woman’s underpants for the first time—“the surprise of what she feels like down there, the look on her face.” (Please excuse my translation.) I know many men who would agree, but I’ve never heard it said in a movie. It’s the giveaway that Paul, even after he completes his thesis, won’t commit to a relationship until he’s getting on in years and one of those women that he’s feeling up for the first time looks at him as if he’s a dirty old man. Which is the place he has just about reached in My Golden Years.

My Sex Life, which established Amalric as one of the most talented actors of his generation, is screening in the French Institute Alliance Française series “Mathieu Amalric: Renaissance Man,” a nearly complete retrospective of his work as an actor and as a director. It has included two performances of a play, Fight or Flight (Le Moral des ménages), a two-hander for Amalric and Anne-Laure Tondu directed by Stéphanie Cléau (the costar and cowriter of Amalric’s terrifying neo-noir The Blue Room). Literally a psychodrama, Fight or Flight is also a vehicle for Amalric, who is as compelling on stage as on the screen.

My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument screens Tuesday, November 17, at 4 PM and 8 PM at FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall in New York.