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Don't mess with Delpy

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

Julie Delpy
Julie Delpy

 

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.

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