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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Comment je me suis disputé... (ma vie sexuelle)

I like to play the game of taking a single moment from a movie I like, and seeing how many general observations about the film flow naturally from that moment. In this game, though, it's important to pick a favorite moment, not just one that analyzes well.

So here's an early scene from Arnaud Desplechin's Comment je me suis disputé... (ma vie sexuelle) that made me laugh aloud, and that would be really cool even if it weren't funny.

Background: In the middle of an evening-long gathering of the friends of Paul Dedalus, Paul's long-time girlfriend Esther arrives late. She seems not to know Paul's friends that well. We learn during the evening that Paul harbors hopes of breaking up with Esther someday.

Scene: As the crowd is leaving a restaurant, Esther stands by a car, smoking a cigarette, with two other women from the group. Making friendly conversation, the women ask Esther whether Paul is an assistant or associate professor (I think; the actual titles may be different). Embarrassed, but smiling, Esther says she doesn't know. Helpfully, the women tell her how to distinguish between the titles - this is a crowd who know something about academia. Esther still laughs and shrugs her ignorance. The women, always friendly, ask a few easier questions: does Paul teach at the Sorbonne or at Nanterre? What is his thesis about? Esther has to admit she doesn't know the answers; she doesn't talk to him about his work. "Is that terrible?" she asks, still smiling. "No!" say both the women, quickly and in unison, laughing. The scene is filmed in a single medium long shot that tracks gradually in to Esther, so that she is alone in the frame when she asks "Is that terrible?" Desplechin's only conspicuous camera gesture during the scene is to pan quickly over to the two women as they say "No!" in unison. The suddenness of the pan emphasizes the "No!" And the scene ends there.

Item #1: Desplechin cares about being entertaining, about surface tone. The subject matter of this scene is not completely comfortable: the moment is embarrassing, Esther is clearly in danger of losing status in this group...and what kind of relationship does she have with Paul anyway? It's safe to say that most filmmakers would have played up her discomfort a bit more. Characteristically, Desplechin prefers to sugar-coat the pill: Esther keeps her cool pretty well, the girlfriend-y tone of the chat is preserved, everyone smiles and has a good time through the shot, the very funny ending is accompanied by the laughter of the characters. We don't see Esther express mortification later, don't see the other women snipe her behind her back. It's possible that both those things happened, but Desplechin doesn't want to elaborate: he's made his point, we all had fun, let's move on.

Item #2: Desplechin wants characters to have specific, psychologically plausible issues. This kind of film can sometimes get by on character archetypes and pleasant evocations of the vibe of hanging out with pals. But Desplechin goes out of his way to point us to non-general character traits. The scene after this one, of the group walking in the Paris night, is dominated by a lengthy voiceover that describes the nature of Paul's friendship with Nathan - that it is based on admiration, not familiarity - and elaborating on the particular ways that that nature manifests itself.

Item #3: This scene is shot in one continuous take. But this is not typical of Desplechin: in fact, most people probably think of him as a director who edits a lot. And yet the tone of the scene is quite typical of Desplechin. It's probably not a good idea to base one's analysis of his style on his use of particular camera techniques.

Item #4: Whether Desplechin edits or holds a shot, we often get the sense of him redirecting our attention in undisguised ways. Here, the rapid pan that ends the scene is a humorous pointer to the place where the social fabric is tearing. A quick edit might do the same thing: as in the subsequent party scene, where Desplechin cuts in to emphasize that Jean-Jacques, the host of the party, is holding Paul's hand persistently after shaking it. There's no denying the connection between Desplechin's style and Truffaut's, and I think we're near the heart of that connection here: Truffaut and Desplechin are both interested in the small, non-obvious things that might give a new spin to an interaction, and they feel empowered to use any technique at their disposal (including the once-denigrated technique of voiceover) to change our perspective. In both cases, the interventions are bold enough that they suggest direct address by the filmmaker to the audience.

Item #4a: But one observes, without wanting to be too absolute about it, that Desplechin's goal is often analysis, psychological clarity; and that Truffaut's is often lyricism via mystery, details that create psychological opacity. We leave this Desplechin scene knowing more about everyone - and I think this is true of his work in general. We often leave Truffaut scenes with a sense of how difficult it is to know people.

Okay, I have no further thoughts on that scene at the moment. Except that Emmanuelle Devos is awesome in this film.



Anonymous Tom said...

GREAT post... but I think that scene takes place during the party at the apartment just a little later in the film. After the dinner, they walk down the street and the narration describes Paul's admiration for Nathan, their embarrassment, etc.

Just saw Desplechin's new documentary film tonight, which is a must-see for fans of his work. So many themes and visual ideas from his features are laid bare...

Thanks for this!

October 11, 2007 11:34 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Ah, that would make more sense, wouldn't it. Sorry about that.

October 11, 2007 11:43 PM  
Anonymous wells said...

I agree with Tom: this post was terrific. You should do more of these, Dan.

October 12, 2007 11:09 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Thanks, y'all. The good thing about this game is that it ties one down to specifics.

October 12, 2007 3:17 PM  

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