Ma vie sexuelle (Paul Dedalus' Journey) Review

If you look into the various facets of Ma vie sexuelle (Paul Dedalus’ Journey) they don’t quite add up. This is a three hour French drama which is character based, set in the present day and over a small period of time. At first the running time seems to be misprint as surely this is the kind of thing reserved for the likes of mammoth biopics in the manner of Gandhi, cast-of-thousands Cecil B. DeMille pictures or, if we stick within arthouse confines, generation spanning efforts such as Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day. Yet the 180 minutes are present and correct (though of course with PAL speed up they become 163) and as such we’re forced to question why. Is this the result of indulgence, ill-discipline or rather a director in complete control?

Thankfully it’s the latter with Desplechin (who also wrote the screenplay) infuses his film with an incredible amount of depth and nuance. Indeed, it’s the kind of work can be described in only one of two ways, either very briefly whilst divulging nothing, or by going into immense detail. Of course, many will wish for this review to be spoiler free and such I’ll go for the former. Essentially then, Ma vie sexuelle follows a “tribe” of Parisian friends and lovers through various romantic entanglements, specifically those of Paul and the three women in his life. Needless to say this is only a setup for Desplechin to investigate his characters and truly get under their skins.

He does this primarily by taking an approach which isn’t too dissimilar from that of the novel. There’s an artful voice-over which draws us in, tells us key points and allows Desplechin to flit through time and space with remarkable ease. Moreover, this very same voice-over is also riddled with literary references, from Kundera to Dickens, thereby furthering the connection. And yet cinematically speaking the reference points, on the other hand, are perhaps a little odd: a twentysomething friendship movie which centres on some very French characters who are in turn comic, neurotic and riddled with crises, Ma vie sexuelle could be labelled as St. Elmo’s Fire meets Eric Rohmer! Depending on which way you look at it, this could be a very off-putting prospect.

Yet this is a film with an often remarkable warmth, the kind you feel that you could dip into for the odd 20 minutes at a time just to enjoy the company of those on-screen. Certainly, they may not always possess the greatest charm owing to their cockiness and more than a little pretentiousness, but then Desplechin doesn’t judge or impose anything upon them. Rather he simply accommodates them and in this respect Ma vie sexuelle becomes an incredibly inviting work. Indeed, there’s also a sense of the actors outweighing the auteur, if you will, such is the manner in which they’re treated. The time which we spend in their company – greatly enhanced by the comparatively short narrative time frame – allows for a real richness to the characters, no doubt also due in part to the uniformly excellent casting. We get to understand the details as well as the bigger, to truly experience the way in which these people smoke a cigarette, say, or throw a glance, or hold their head in their hands.

Just as important is the manner in which the duration aids Desplechin in other areas. Key to this is the fact that despite making a three hour movie, he treats with the lightness of touching befitting one half its length. Thus he is free to digress where he pleases, an odd asides (such as the monkey incident) or to go completely overboard as in the baroque scoring and the startling dream sequence. Indeed, in a much shorter or more remote effort these elements would no doubt jar, yet here they simply add another texture to an already rich and complex work. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine Ma vie sexuelle cropped down to a more obviously palatable size –the scale of the losses would no doubt be immeasurable.

What we have then, for want of a better term, is a great big tiny movie. It has the moments of a smaller, character based film (say, a Rohmer film or one of Woody Allen’s dramas), yet the length makes it more greatly resemble a good book. Indeed, Ma vie sexuelle’s richness can really only be hinted at in a review such as this (I haven’t mentioned the Stevie Wonder song at the piano, for example, or a hundred other delicate moments), but then that only it makes it a film which is ripe for repeated rediscovery.

The Disc

Another of Pathé’s world cinema titles, Ma vie sexuelle (Paul Dedalus’ Journey) is thus given a less than impressive DVD treatment. The film’s only extra is its original theatrical trailer (admittedly fascinating as it attempts to sum up three hours in three minutes) and the presentation is mostly lacklustre. Taken from an old print we do admittedly get the original aspect ratio and a general cleanliness, but otherwise it’s showing signs of age inasmuch as there is a lack of detail in the darker shades as everything appears to be fading to an unsightly brown. Moreover, the English subtitles are burnt-in and the film lacks anamorphic enhancement (though admittedly this is nowhere near as infuriating as it would have been had Desplechin gone for a much wider ratio). As for the soundtrack, we get the original French stereo and this is mostly fine. Again signs of age are apparent, though for the most part the clarity is pleasing especially when handling Krishna Levy’s fine score. Ultimately it’s all acceptable and remains watchable, but then this is a film which really does deserve more.

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