In American movies, falling in love usually seems too easy. In French ones, it often seems too hard. Even by Gallic standards, however, Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric) has a tough time with amour. An aimless 29-year-old philosophy assistant professor, the protagonist of My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument can’t quite break up with his girlfriend of 10 years, clingy translation student Esther (Emmanuelle Devos). Nor can he stop himself from dallying with such women as Sylvia (Marianne Denicourt), the girlfriend of his best friend Nathan (Emmanuel Salinger), and Valérie (Jeanne Balibar), who’s involved with another member of Paul’s circle. Like a lot of men who are supposed to be finishing a philosophy doctoral thesis, Paul finds eros a lot more compelling than epistemology.
Sex and the single philosophy student was also the subject of Diary of a Seducer, another recent French comedy, which showed here last month. My Sex Life even features two of the same actors, Amalric and Chiara Mastroianni, who plays another member of Paul’s circle. Yet director and co-writer Arnaud Desplechin has something quite different in mind; his style owes more to the novel than the fable. (Paul even shares the last name of James Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus.) Desplechin’s film is rich in everyday detail, from Paul’s childhood memories to Esther’s menstrual irregularity to Paul’s friend Ivan’s (Fabrice Desplechin) curiously sensual quest to become a priest. At three hours long, it has time to be relaxed and discursive.
The film’s English title reverses the French one, emphasizing Paul’s sex life over his argument. That’s not just savvy marketing; it reflects Paul’s own view of life. The argument comes when the preposterous, monkey-toting Rabier (Michel Vuillermoz), a former classmate and a former friend, arrives on campus as the new department head. This not only forces Paul into proximity with a man with whom he had a friendship-ending dispute but also makes him face the fact that his own academic career is faltering. The realization engenders a crisis, but one that hardly upstages Paul’s obsession with the (almost) unattainable Sylvia and his off-and-on relationship with the mercurial Valérie.
Paul could be seen as a cad, although his ultimate justification for his philandering is more philosophical than egotistical. And most of the women in his life know exactly what they (and he) are doing. Shortly after Paul first meets Sylvia at a municipal pool, he goes looking for her and finds her naked in a changing stall. He stares, and she confidently returns his gaze. The poise of these characters is as striking as their beauty; the old categories of seducer and prey cannot apply to them.
While Desplechin focuses on the mundane details of Paul’s life and lusts, he does so in a style that is both complex and elegantly nuanced. Although the film’s style is naturalistic, its flashbacks are dizzying; keeping track of the characters’ various white lies is complicated by the shifting chronology. In this fractured and open-ended narrative, Paul’s various crushes seem like an eternal recurrence of desire. Rather than trivialize him, the erotic-minded professor’s affairs seem to ennoble him.
My Sex Life was shot with handheld camera, as is virtually required by the labyrinthine apartments and crowded cafes its characters inhabit. Yet Desplechin doesn’t employ the showy pseudo-documentary mode that has become common in recent art films. Instead, cinematographer Eric Gautier’s style is nearly seamless and skillfully subjective. Following Paul’s erotic gaze, the camera draws the viewer into his momentary perceptions. Like sexual attraction itself, Desplechin’s film is simultaneously ephemeral and acute.
The earliest scenes in Hamsun, Jan Troell’s film about the Norwegian novelist, take place in 1935. By that time, Knut Hamsun’s writing career was essentially over. He’d won the Nobel Prize 15 years before, and—at least in scripter Per Olov Enquist’s telling—was simply playing solitaire and waiting to die. Unfortunately for his reputation, Hamsun lived another 17 years. That was long enough to transform him from an eccentric into a traitor.
Hamsun (Max von Sydow) wrote novels that celebrated Nordic, agrarian values, ideals he shared not only with Hitler. After the Germans occupied Norway, however, the novelist’s kinship with the Nazi leader was all that mattered. Although he was apparently ignorant of Hitler’s racialist theories, Hamsun hated the British and felt the Germans were cousins of his beloved countrymen. (Ironically, he spoke English but not German.) He believed Hitler’s vague promises to establish a free and prominent Norway at the end of the war and was distressed that young Norwegians were dying battling the Germans. So he penned newspaper editorials calling on the Norwegian resistance to cease its fighting, writings that guaranteed him a date in court after Germany lost the war.
In this film’s complex portrait, Hamsun emerges as both an idealist and a tyrant. He fights bitterly with his wife Marie (Ghita Nørby), an actress and children’s book author, from whom he separates several times, and drives at least some of his four children to drink and madness. Yet he detests cruelty and is kindly toward young children. After the war, Hamsun is subjected to a harsh re-education program by an arrogant psychiatrist (Erik Hivju)—he’s as autocratic as Hitler or Hamsun—who at one point shows him footage of Nazi death camps. “The children,” Hamsun weeps.
This is not Hamsun’s first brush with disillusionment about the Nazi cause. At one point, the novelist has an audience with Hitler himself (Ernst Jacobi), who wants to talk about his favorite Hamsun novel, The Growth of the Soil. Too self-absorbed to realize the risk he’s taking, Hamsun insists on knowing when the Germans will withdraw from Norway and why he’s been unable to get some of his friends and associates released from Gestapo prisons. Hamsun’s terrified interpreter stops translating the novelist’s words, and Hitler storms from the room in a rage.
Yet later, when Berlin falls, Hamsun dutifully writes a favorable autobiography for the Führer. And, after his exposure to Nazi atrocities, he still can’t bring himself to question his judgment. At the trial he insisted upon, he defends himself in hopelessly egocentric terms. “No one ever told me what I was writing was wrong,” he protests. This self-defeating testimony brings him a major fine.
Troell’s Hamsun is a complicated character, but no more so than his wife. At first sympathetic simply because she endures the writer’s abuse, Marie loses her appeal as she embraces Nazism more enthusiastically than her husband. She becomes friends with Norway’s notorious Nazi puppet Vidkun Quisling and cheerfully tours Germany as the novelist’s surrogate. She reads from his books to respectful audiences, but when she speaks extemporaneously she shows far more zeal for the German war effort than did her husband.
Troell was once touted as Bergman’s successor, and Hamsun combines that director’s unflinching marital autopsies with Troell’s own, more heroically inclined style. A brief sequence of the German invasion of Norway provides most of the epic content, but the director manages to convey the sweep of history even though most of the scenes involve merely Hamsun and one of his adversaries (Marie, Hitler, the psychiatrist, or one of children) talking. The 160-minute film switches from the intimate to the epic as the score glides from the meditative music of Arvo Pärt to the bluster of Richard Wagner.
Although the opening scene is a little blatant—watch out for little girls who ask old men, “Why did you become a traitor?”—the rest is as rich and subtle as von Sydow’s performance. Where many a compelling film is the tale of an education, Hamsun is the story of a man who suffers tremendous reversals without ever losing his essential, and crippling, self-regard. As von Sydow fascinatingly portrays the novelist, everything about him withers except his imperiousness. Regimes rise and fall, eras begin and end, but Knut Hamsun remains a lordly fool.
While Hamsun can’t wait to tell you that its protagonist is a Nazi, Seven Years in Tibet dawdles until the film is almost over to drop a hint. That’s because director Jean-Jacques Annaud and scripter Becky Johnston weren’t aware that their hero, Heinrich Harrer, had been a member of the SA and the SS; he left that out of the autobiographical account they adapted for this movie. The only thing the filmmakers could do after Harrer’s cover was blown earlier this year was add a few lines of voice-over, in which the transformed Heinrich (a German-accented but still California-looking Brad Pitt) muses that he “once embraced the same beliefs as” Tibet’s Communist Chinese invaders.
This doesn’t exactly counterbalance the opening scene: Departing Austria in 1939 with thoughts only of mountaineering, Heinrich grudgingly accepts a swastika banner to carry to the peak of Nanga Parbat, a towering Himalayan peak. Still, the Nazi revelation doesn’t significantly taint the film’s message, since Heinrich entirely missed World War II and he’s not supposed to be a likable character in the first half of the tale anyway. Also, because Pitt’s Heinrich doesn’t really carry the movie. He’s merely the Western guide to a world far more interesting than his own life story.
Heinrich leaves behind both the imminent war and his angry wife, who’s soon to deliver a son, promising to return in four months. He takes with him, however, his biggest problem: his arrogance. In the failed ascent of Nanga Parbat, he keeps his distance from the other climbers, including expedition chief Peter Aufschnaiter (Naked’s David Thewlis). Heinrich maintains his haughty attitude even after returning to the foothills to find that he and his colleagues are now enemy aliens in British-run India. When finally escaping from prison with the rest of the climbing party, he insists on going his own way.
Eventually, however, Heinrich and Peter form a reluctant partnership in their quest to enter the forbidden country of Tibet. Though greeted as “devils” and escorted back over the border by the first Tibetans they meet, the two men make it to Lhasa, where their curiosity value buys them refuge. Ultimately, Heinrich becomes a friend and informal tutor of the 14-year-old Dalai Lama (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, son of a Bhutanese diplomat, whose brother plays the Dalai Lama at 8). As the climber teaches the young leader about the outside world, he begins to benefit from the peacefulness and selflessness of Tibetan Buddhist culture. But the story has one more chapter: the 1949 Chinese invasion of Tibet.
As he did with The Bear and The Lover, Annaud sets a dubious story in compelling surroundings. Shot principally in Argentina and Canada, Seven Years in Tibet benefits not only from epic locations but also from fastidious production design and costuming. Just as it was difficult to imagine anyone returning to Seattle after experiencing the glories of Tibet in Little Buddha, it’s hard to care when the newly sensitized Heinrich returns to Austria to establish a relationship with the son he’s never seen. (He’s supposed to be transferring his paternal feelings for the Dalai Lama to a more suitable figure, but dramatically this is flat.)
Of course, Seven Years in Tibet romanticizes 1940s Tibet; as the Dalai Lama himself admits, he would not be the man he is today if he had stayed in the rigid autocracy that existed in his country before the invasion. Given a choice between the Chinese occupiers and the native theocrats, however, it’s impossible not to prefer the latter. Perhaps the upcoming Hollywood accounts of Tibetan nobility and Chinese brutality (Martin Scorsese’s Kundun and Richard Gere’s Red Corner) will offer a more nuanced representation. In the meantime, Annaud’s snowy peaks, billowing robes, and chanting monks have a pageantry whose appeal transcends Harrer’s story.CP