Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle)

Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle)/Ma vie sexuelle/My Sex Life… or How I got into an Argument (1996 France 178 mins)

Prod Co: France 2 Cinéma/La Sept Ciné/Why Not Productions Prod: Pascal Caucheteux Dir: Arnaud Desplechin Scr: Emmanuel Bourdieu, Arnaud Desplechin Phot: Stéphane Fontaine, Eric Gautier, Dominique Perrier-Royer Ed: Laurence Briaud, François Gédigier Art Dir: Antoine Platteau Mus: Krishna Levy

Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, Emmanuel Salinger, Marianne Denicourt, Thibault de Montalembert, Chiara Mastroianni

Brennan: The need to stand out from the crowd is innate.
Booth: Pffft! It’s obnoxious!

Bones (“The Wannabe in the Weeds”, series 3, episode 14, 2008)

I’m looking through you, where did you go?
I thought I knew you, what did I know?
You don’t look different, but you have changed.
I’m looking through you, you’re not the same.

– “I’m Looking through You”, The Beatles

The credit sequence of Comment je me suis disputé… (ma vie sexuelle) intercuts shots of Paris waterways at dawn with details of similar views in a dark-toned painting, all to a soundtrack of anxious chamber music, over children’s cries and the creaking of a boat. This sequence thus introduces the narrative in its physical, psychic and metaphorical dimensions. It echoes the unsettling effect of the montage that closes Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962), where the lovers’ failure to meet is displaced onto a twilit chorus of the city’s alienating, dehumanised sites. Placed at the beginning of Ma vie sexuelle, it serves as a bucket of cold water on the succeeding warm, empathetic depiction of its hero, academic Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric) and his social world of lovers, friends, relatives and colleagues. The film is occasionally punctuated by moments like these: brief, distancing depictions of interiors and exteriors seemingly independent of the characters that inhabit them, culminating in the sequence of Paul’s nervous breakdown. Out jogging in the Parisian suburbs, he is confronted by the presence of leafless trees as silently hostile as Hitchcock’s birds (1).

Paul is a lecturer of philosophy (2), and this episode of existential crisis imitates that of Roquentin in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel La nausée (Nausea, 1938; Roquentin is 30, Paul 29; both are unable to complete research projects). The second-hand or “quoted” nature of Paul’s trauma – added to the fact that he is not only named after the mythical maker of labyrinths, but also another famous modernist youth trying to negotiate his personal, social and intellectual identity, Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1916), whose epiphany/humiliation trajectory Paul follows – complicates what for the most part appears to be a “realistic” work, firmly grounded in time, place and milieu (a 20-something intellectual set in mid-1990s Paris).

Director Arnaud Desplechin has been compared to both Woody Allen (3) and Eric Rohmer (4), largely because he depicts groups of hyper-articulate intellectuals in urban settings, contrasting a diversionary excess of verbal information with the subtler dynamics working under his films’ surface. The comparisons are accurate to a point, but Ma vie sexuelle most reminds this writer of a work of the “fantastic”, Les enfants terribles (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1950). It sets individual struggle between childhood potentiality and adult commitment against group interaction and circumscribed Parisian spaces. Narration, doubling and dream-like interruptions are used to disturb the surface of the story. To tell his story, Desplechin invokes different, often discordant, filmic and literary plots and registers. The film is framed by intangibles and uncertainty, beginning with its protagonist waking from a daytime doze and ending with a memory (5).

The apparently single-minded focus on “Paul Dedalus’ journey” (6), and his excessive and proprietary assertion of identity in the title (“je”, “me”, “ma”), are complicated by: a curiously disengaged omniscient narration that explains the “real” motives behind what we see onscreen, and dissolves the narrative’s present tense into a perplexing mix of past, present, future, imperfect, conditional and subjunctive; musical commentary and leitmotifs which move from diegetic pop, hip hop and jazz, to Baroque playfulness (as in Melville’s film, Vivaldi is a guiding spirit), turning late 20th century complications into an 18th century comedy of manners; visualisations of dreams, desires and idealised pasts; episodes over-determined with mysterious symbolic significance, in particular the incident with the monkey trapped behind an office radiator; flashbacks of uncertain status, mysterious dialogues and expressionistically-lit set-pieces; and staged interventions, such as Esther’s (Emmanuelle Devos) dictation of a “letter” to Paul, given as a direct address to camera.

Paul clearly dominates the film, but there are long sequences during which he is absent, especially in the second half, with the plot focusing on Esther’s depression. Desplechin consistently cuts unannounced into long sequences (just as the narrator lops months-long chunks off the narrative’s timespan), shoots characters from an ostentatious variety of angles, gives space to competing discussions and opinions of Paul and his associates, and represents the different media characters use to shape experience (fiction, philosophy, psychoanalysis, conversation, diaries, letters, etc.). All this adds to a shifting, decentred perspective on one character and his world, as well as problems of identity, representation and narration.

The threshold is the film’s prime motif – the credits sequence unfolds against the dawn; this is appropriate for the narrative of an individual in a Bildungsroman (7), that of a young individual negotiating his identity through contact with and observation of others (8). Paul – who sees himself living a “half-life” – inhabits intermediate spaces: the flat he shares with his cousin Bob (Thibault de Montalembert) and Bob’s girlfriend Patricia (Chiara Mastroianni); classrooms; anterooms, alcoves and doorways; corridors and lobbies; offices and cafés; streets and subways. He also hovers between such opposites as male/female, child/adult, mentor/apprentice, mind/body, indoors/outdoors, action/paralysis, verbal/written, performer/audience, conscious/unconscious (9).

The film is also full of fights through which the hero must forge his identity, and reach “the royal road to the recognition of others”. The most discomfiting of these is Paul’s central affair with Valérie (Jeanne Balibar), a character constructed as volatile and duplicitous, associated with invasion and castration. It is debatable whether the relentless misogyny in Ma vie sexuelle can be attributed to the posturing, insecure male characters or the film itself. The emphasis on words, sociability and the mind in the character of Paul is contrasted with the largely silent (at one point she loses her speech), solitary and bodily expressiveness of Esther’s depression sequence (10). Even her apparent over-turning of Paul’s supremacy in the park, when she exuberantly asserts herself against his silence, is followed by a scene of inchoate anger and grief as she tries to execrate him on the phone. In this respect, the film’s key scene shows Paul giving Esther advice during one of their habitual arguments; his words overlap and multiply on the soundtrack, turning from carriers of meaning into almost spiritual torments.

But it’s also possible that all this heterosexual agony is the film’s most Rohmeresque bluff. Paul spends much of the film mythically obsessing over his lost love, Sylvie (Marianne Denicourt), now the girlfriend of the man he most admires, the impossibly self-possessed Nathan (Emmanuel Salinger). Is Desplechin hiding in plain sight Paul’s true romance, that for his best friend? No wonder he’s so confused…


  1. For more on Desplechin’s “symbolic treatment of space” (p. 62), see Marja Warehime, “Politics, Sex, and French Cinema in the 1990s: The Place of Arnaud Desplechin”, French Studies vol. 56, no. 1, January 2002.
  2. At the University of Nanterre, like the students in Godard’s La Chinoise (1967); the character of Paul is loosely based on that of Desplechin’s co-screenwriter, Emmanuel Bourdieu, who was completing his own doctoral thesis at the time. Brian Price and Meghan Sutherland, “The Art of Impurity: An Interview with Emmanuel Bourdieu”, Jargon Spring 2008.
  3. There is even a sequence in which Paul observes his own childhood, that is inspired by Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977).
  4. Michael Temple, “Ma vie sexuelle (How I got into an Argument)”, Sight and Sound vol. 7, no. 8, August 1997, p. 46. Other points of comparison include the psychodramas of Maurice Pialat and the temporal experiments of Alain Resnais. Chris Darke, “The Group”, Sight and sound vol. 9, no. 12, December 1999, p. 25; Warehime, p. 72.
  5. Warehime suggests a “Somatic Link” between Desplechin’s previous film, La sentinelle (1992) and Ma vie sexuelle, with the hero ending the first asleep and his successor in the second waking up. Warehime, p. 69.
  6. This is the subtitle of the DVD released in Britain by Pathé in 2005.
  7. Temple, p. 46.
  8. Other metaphors include translation, animals, blood, and Old Testament or mythical references. More important are associative chains of images, such as Valérie’s abortion/dead monkey/Paul’s thesis retrieved from the garbage.
  9. Warehime (p. 69) discusses the use of “dialectical oppositions” in La sentinelle.
  10. Other female characters are defined by rape, abortion and breast cancer. Warehime discusses this aspect more fully, and considers the film’s sexual politics “reactionary” and “regressive”. Warehime, pp. 75-77.

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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