Don't mess with Delpy

The French actress is brave and brilliant - if only her latest film lived up to her talents

 

The tardy sequel, so late in arriving that it has less in common with the Supermans and Lethal Weapons of this world than with the 7 Up series (which was back on our television screens this week), has as its current public ambassador Julie Delpy. She is the star and co-writer of the most delicious example of this species of storytelling—Richard Linklater’s brace of Before films (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset; a third is currently in the works). Or at least that’s the case now that Truffaut isn’t around to make any more Antoine Doinel films.

But Delpy has also made her own independent contribution to this genre, which we will label temporarily “sequels-to-movies-that-you-never-knew-needed-sequels-in-the-first-place.” In 2007, she wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in and scored the abrasive romantic comedy 2 Days in Paris. Such extensive creative input must mean that the film represents her authentic voice. (It also means that the end credits were significantly shorter than in other movies.) And what a voice! She had already provided some vital prickliness and scepticism amongst the lovely gap-year wish-fulfilment of Before Sunrise, but nothing to prepare audiences for the emotionally and sexually forceful, taxi-driver-berating, self-righteous livewire and provocateur that she played in her own film.

2 Days in Paris focused on Marion (Delpy), who takes her uptight New Yorker boyfriend Jack (the glorious Adam Goldberg) to meet her parents. The culture-clash theme was amplified, with wit and originality, in Jack’s paranoia about Marion’s sexual history. Everywhere he turns in Paris, he finds apparent traces of her lively past. What is meant to be a relaxing break becomes a battlefield in which the white, male, American ego and the French self-image suffer the severest injuries.

The prickly punchline of the movie is that it isn’t paranoia at all: his fears are entirely justified. (“He knew Paris was for lovers,” runs the poster’s on-the-money tagline. “He just didn’t think they were all hers.”) It wasn’t exactly that the serious material was made palatable by the humour—the comedy itself was barbed, so that the darkness and lightness in the script often became inseparable. And Delpy demonstrated an expert command of her material, using the romcom format to make some important points about the cultural and emotional barriers that have to be vaulted in a relationship. “What really inspired me was Jaws,” Delpy said. “But instead of the shark, the threat to Jack comes from all these virile French guys. He’s under attack.”

Five years on, Delpy returns as Marion in 2 Days in New York (which she again wrote, directed, produced… well, you get the gist). Marion has now separated from Jack, though they have a young son who lives with her in the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her new partner, Mingus (Chris Rock). This time the situation is reversed, with Marion’s family descending on her—her insatiable, rambunctious father (played by the actor’s real-life parent Albert Delpy), her antagonistic sister Rose (Alexia Landeau) and Rose’s feckless boyfriend Manu (Alex Nahon). (Landeau and Nahon, who both appeared in the first film, also helped Delpy with the new movie’s story.)

Anyone who admired 2 Days in Paris will probably be asking the same question: “What, no Jack?” Adam Goldberg’s neurotic energy was so central to the earlier film, and he was such a perfect match for Delpy, that there can’t help but be a slight sag when we realise his name is absent from the cast list. “I knew I couldn’t do a sequel with the same guy,” Delpy explains in the press notes, “because that would be too much like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Out of respect for Richard [Linklater] and Ethan [Hawke, her co-star], I knew I couldn’t do that.”

It should be said that Rock is quite a revelation as the tender but increasingly harried Mingus, who has to contend with Marion’s mounting volatility, Rose’s advances and Manu’s casual racism (he is perturbed to discover that Mingus, as an African-American, doesn’t like Salt’N’Pepa or dope). Underplaying throughout, Rock displays an appealing dryness that hasn’t always come through in his own star vehicles.

The problem is the movie itself. Much of the familiar furniture is in place: the difficult family, the probing camerawork, the return of key cast members (including Daniel Brühl, who reprises his role as a fairy). But the film has no centre. New York doesn’t figure as a character or a force, malevolent or otherwise, as Paris did previously. Without the sexual paranoia that held together the original, the sequel is a loosely connected series of skits, observations and arguments in search of a script editor. There are several strong scenes, not least Marion’s encounter with a cantankerous neighbour, but none of the tantalising blend of weight and dottiness that distinguished its predecessor.

Nonetheless, I still think there’s something to celebrate. Or rather, someone. Delpy has long been unafraid to speak out on the subject of the movie industry’s sexism, and it’s refreshing to find that she is prepared to show herself in an unflattering or aggressive role on screen. “I hate being a male fantasy,” she told me when I interviewed her in 2007. “So many times I’ve been in a room pitching some movie to the financiers, and they’re blatantly just staring at my legs…The response I got whenever I pitched something was, ‘Why don’t you write something sweet?’” Nor was that restricted to stereotypical cigar-chomping Hollywood suits. In the early 1990s, she auditioned for the dual lead roles in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Veronique:

“[Kieślowski] asked me to do a sexy gesture. That really bothered me. So I did this [sticks tongue out and pulls on earlobes]. I knew by the look on his face that I hadn’t got the part. But I was really mad with him. All that younger-woman bullshit you get. That fucking pervert. That ... man!

She did end up working with Kieślowski several years later on Three Colours White, and grew to love and admire him, but the point is well made: no one messes with Delpy, regardless of whether they live for art or opening-weekend grosses. At least Marion is allowed to be a fallible, messy and ribald human being without either of the films passing judgement on her. Let’s prize Delpy for that, and hope that the next film she makes marshals more successfully her rampant intelligence.

2 Days in New York opens on Friday.

Julie Delpy

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser