While Americans no doubt have their fair share of guilt-laden liberal filmmakers -- think Michael Moore -- it's comforting to know France sports at least one cynical anti-nationalist. Actress Julie Delpy makes her directing debut with 2 Days in Paris, which is at once a gimlet-eyed love story and a refreshingly cynical take on the French character. Her Paris is a hotbed of racists, nationalists, on-the-make men and vegan anarchists who blithely set fast-food restaurants on fire.
But what makes her first effort so compelling and richer than its jokey patter initially suggests is how she overturns the cinematic allure of The City of Light. She brings an almost metafiction approach drawn from her previous acting work for Richard Linklater. It's a sensibility found among other recent efforts by actresses turned filmmakers.
Delpy starred opposite Ethan Hawke in both of Linklater's slacker romances, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). With 2 Days in Paris, Delpy blends life and art by casting her own parents and ex-boyfriend Adam Goldberg as her onscreen lover, eschewing Linklater's earnest romanticism for a saltier, more jaded female vantage.
Delpy's film shares similarities with those by other actresses who have moved behind the camera, including Sarah Polley (Away from Her) and Kasi Lemmons (Talk to Me). These films share a cynical approach to the status quo, charismatic male characters, and sex rendered with a degree of truthfulness, psychology and fun through feminine eyes. In an industry where actresses are typically put out to pasture after 30, it shouldn't surprise that Delpy, Polley and Lemmons are attracted to outsider points of view; surely it's nurtured by their real-world experience in gender-politics-backward Hollywood. Delpy has detailed her own experience with the casting couch early in her career, while Lemmons told me in an interview earlier this year about the grossly unbalanced number of female directors to male ones in the film industry.
Jumping off from Linklater's scenarios of lovers with a shelf life, 2 Days in Paris follows the snarky Parisian Marion (Delpy), and an equally critical American, Jack (Adam Goldberg), as they hop off a night train from a Venice vacation and appear to suffer the consequences of too little sleep and too cramped quarters.
Alighting in Paris before continuing on to their home in New York City, Marion and Jack bicker and complain even though they share some left-leaning tendencies and scruffy grooming. With her black-rimmed glasses, mussed hair, flak jacket and a T-shirt silk-screened with a gun that points directly at Jack, Marion is a study in Woody Allen geek chic. By contrast, Jack is a relative prude, disgusted by French rudeness, promiscuity and black mold while prone to utter phrases such as "Kids are like rats; they carry diseases."
Jack matches Marion's Gen-X feistiness in spades. In an effort to move up more quickly in the train-station taxi line, he sends a group of fat, pro-Bush American tourists on a wild goose chase to the Louvre. "You're mean," Marion chides at Jack's disdain for his fellow Americans. "But you're so right."
While Linklater's Before movies were all about prolonged verbal foreplay, Delpy's bawdy, rueful film centers on desire's aftermath as Marion and Jack contend with the possible end to their relationship.
Jack suspects infidelity, and in the sexed-up atmosphere of Paris, Marion does a miserable job of convincing him otherwise. A portrait of the failings of her native land, 2 Days in Paris is also Delpy's entry into the battleground of postboomer romance as seen in the works of Neil LaBute (The Shape of Things) and Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing). Her characters rebel against the conventional even as they seek solace in the most clichéd arrangement imaginable: a grown-up, monogamous relationship.
Instantly likable for the sheer fact of weathering the Parisian's gauntlet of cruelty, Jack is at the center of a reoccurring joke in 2 Days in Paris: the epic rudeness of the locals. But there's something more current and virulent going down here. Every time Marion and Jack get into a cab, they encounter some new example of the nationalistic populace.
Crankiness is the lingua franca of Delpy's Paris, practiced by everyone from racist cabbies to Marion's lusty, boho parents. Some of the film's best, most hilarious scenes take place in her parents' garden residence below the matchbox apartment where Marion and Jack decamp. A pair of wild-haired ex-hippies with a mutual disdain for Americans, Anna and Jeannot (played by Delpy's real-life parents Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy) quiz Jack by lobbing names of writers at him in an effort to weed out American ignorance and shout with sudden Tourette's rage at Jack, "Speak French, goddamn it!"
Paris on film has been the consummate coital city, its history and beauty apt to make susceptible hearts go all atwitter. Paris in Delpy's film is an ethnically divided, politically intolerant, post-Sept. 11 case of blue balls.
While some of Delpy's gags can feel derivative – such as a diagram that pops up onscreen to illustrate Jack's reading material and a scene with Marion's artist ex that has the attitude of an '80s sex comedy – the act of seeing France and relationships through a world-weary woman's eyes is certainly worth the admission price.
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