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JANUARY 12, 1998:  The erotic forays and existential musings of a tribe of Parisian late-twentysomethings unfold compelling under the inventive, hawk-eyed direction of Arnaud Desplechin, who also co-wrote the script. At the heart of a stunning ensemble cast is Mathieu Almaric as Paul Dedalus. Slightly built, fey-featured, Almaric is one of the more charming and mercurial antiheroes in recent movies.

An assistant professor of philosophy who can't finish his dissertation, Paul distracts himself with constant sexual crises. He believes his girlfriend of 10 years, Esther (the astonishingly good Emmanuelle Devos), is holding him back, yet he can't seem to break up with her. He briefly bedded Sylvia (played with diamond-hard sexiness by Marianne Denicourt), the provocative ice maiden girlfriend of best bud Nathan (Emmanuel Salinger), two years back and still guiltily covets her. But once Paul manages to send Esther packing, he hits on the volatile, hyper-needy Valérie (a brilliantly quirky Jeanne Balibar). He also wants ethereal Patricia (Chiara Mastroianni), the guileless girlfriend of his cousin/roommate Bob (Thibault de Montalembert), who constantly regales Paul with hilarious anecdotes of his own infidelities. The friends are together constantly, which makes for some exquisite sexual tension as they breezily quote Kundera and Kierkegaard over their café au lait.

But Paul's existence is not all sexual angst: the "argument" is with his ex-friend Rabier, a pretentious academic who lands a plummy job in Paul's department. Rabier's snubs catalyze Paul's frustration even as he continues his aimless sexual pursuits. Under Desplechin's sure hand, and realized by the actresses' superb portrayals, the complex personalities of Paul's conquests (all leggy brunettes with improbably high cheekbones) come to the fore, suggesting several alternate narratives shaped by their perceptions, not Paul's.

Three hours is a long time to watch a film about anyone's sex life, even one of those scruffy-but-cute French guys. But this intimate epic breezes by like a stroll along the Seine, shimmering with intelligence and intrigue. At the Coolidge Corner.

-- Peg Aloi

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