Desplechin continues his exploration of love and morbidity, last displayed in his 1992 Cannes entry “La Sentinelle,” with this study of the unbearable heaviness of dating and academia. Clearly comfortable with his large and talented cast, the young helmer here reveals himself to be a thesp’s dream. Shots linger lovingly on faces, and already long scenes are fully played out. The perfs he gets in return are uniformly first-rate.
Paul (Mathieu Amalric) is a chain-smoking grad student and teacher with an eternally unfinished dissertation and a deliberately complex emotional life. He dumps Esther (Emmanuelle Devos), his girlfriend of 10 years, and takes up with violently neurotic Valerie (Jeanne Balibar), a sensual space case living with another man. The garrulous, agoraphobic Paul effects this switch to forget the lovely Sylvia (Marianne Denicourt), the girlfriend of a fellow grad student. Even after all his traumatic couplings and breakups, it is the memory of a brief affair with Sylvia that torments him the most.
As Paul’s plight worsens, the emotional destinies of his equally self-analytical band of friends
and enemies become intermingled and, inevitably, conflicting. Endless conversations swirl around motives, dreams and desires as all concerned prefer talking to living. In pic’s only truly comic predicament, Paul’s good friend Ivan (Fabrice Desplechin) decides to become a priest even though he remains attached to the pleasures of the flesh. Professorial rivalry and the French tendency to lionize intellectuals are also sent up in the character of Frederic Rabier (Michel Vuillermoz), a hip epistemologist given to walking the halls of academe with a pet monkey in tow.
A sometimes arch look at the dilemmas of the overeducated, pic nonetheless shows unexpected compassion for the heartbreak and loneliness of Esther (Paul dumps her by saying, “It’s not my fault. It’s universal.”). Actress Devos takes this lengthy talkfest and injects it with genuine, non-intellectualized emotion that catches the heart. As the brilliantly glib Paul, Amalric strides confidently through the thicket of articulate neuroses that Desplechin and co-scripter Emmanuel Bourdieu have fashioned for him.
Tech credits are accomplished in this marathon of distraught monologues, especially Eric Gautier’s unerringly intimate lensing, which combines with first-rate sound work by Laurent Poirier to create a tremendously vivid, fluid feel throughout. Delightful if undisciplined, Desplechin’s treatment of the unalterable strangeness of hetero relationships would have been better served, and been accessible to a wider audience, had there been a sterner hand in the cutting room. However, that criticism, like everything else in the pic, is open to discussion.