Here's just one of the ways Julie Delpy's art mingles uncomfortably with her life: Recently, she was pulled over for taking her seatbelt off at a red light. The police officer who stopped her was an African-American man of a similar build to Chris Rock, her co-star in 2 Days in New York, which opened on Friday and which Delpy both wrote and directed. Her three-year-old son, Leo, who'd learned what "acting" was when he visited the set and saw Rock kissing his mom, looked at the cop and said: "Mommy, is he an actor?"
There are certainly elements of her own life in bio of her protagonist Marion, who we last saw in 2007's 2 Days in Paris. Like Delpy, Marion has a young son and her mother has recently died. Complicating the plot further is that Marion's father is played by Delpy's actual father, French actor Albert Delpy.
But that does not mean the film is autobiographical. "The skeleton of [the film] is based on something I know," she admits, "but then it's very different."
Marion, Delpy says, is another person altogether, one she finds liberating to portray: "It's fun to play someone confused," she tells me in that charming accent of hers. "I daydream of being this impulsive [person]."
It's funny she says that, because the first role most North Americans remember Delpy for is the impulsive Céline in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, and later, Before Sunset. Céline gets off a train to wander the streets of Vienna with a young Ethan Hawke. It's not hard to see how she acquired a reputation for being quirky. She's had a habit of working in the kind of naturalistic film where the audience leaves the theatre feeling they've been allowed to see the performer behind the mask.
But in person Delpy, 42, is less scattered and more confident than her characters, boisterous but still plainly careful about her choice of words and presentation. When we meet in New York, she's in a black dress and sensible pink ballet flats, with a little makeup, elegant and composed. She laughs and gestures and acts out her stories, but the movements are all demonstrably more controlled.
And in that way she's an allegory for what she's trying to do with 2 Days in New York, which joins a number of recent pop culture artifacts that articulate the female experience of certain big themes – love, marriage, career, mortality. Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz, Lena Dunham's Girls, and the U.S. publication of Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? have all been the subject of a lot of chatter this summer, often because the characters concerning themselves with Big Questions often come off looking like, well, messes.
And Marion is quite messy. She has left her child's father (Adam Goldberg, her co-star in 2 Days in Paris) and taken up with Mingus (Chris Rock), a radio host who has a daughter and two divorces of his own. In one scene, Marion recalls the beginning moment of their romance as one in which she confesses to Mingus that post-childbirth she's been struggling with incontinence. As Rock recoils, she tells him she's doing Kegel exercises to cure it, illustrating their, er, rhythm with facial expressions.
In an early review in The Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton evinces what one suspects would be a common male reaction to this sort of thing: He calls Marion "often downright grating." Personally, I found Marion endearing and hilarious.
When asked directly whether she thinks this is a movie "for" women, Delpy smiles, and says, "Sure, why not. I think the film definitely has a more female point of view, and voice." And of course the scene is supposed to play as a joke: "I thought it was funny," Delpy says.
As she began to write and direct films, Delpy thought: "I'm the writer, I can introduce the idea that women have insecurity about the idea of commitment." She could also upend certain tropes of romantic comedies that seem increasingly outdated. "This idea that women don't think of sex as much," she declared, "it's getting old."
The 2 Days movies have frequently been compared to Woody Allen's work, and they do share certain features: the neuroticism, the voiceovers, the rather fantastical apartment for a pair of poor creative types living in Manhattan. Delpy says she's flattered by the comparison, though she distinguishes her work on gender grounds there, too: "There's not young, sexy girls everywhere." And, she'd like to point out, "The men are not objectified either, there's no objectification of anyone." She pauses, and jokes, "I'm looking forward to objectifying men soon enough." In a film, of course.
But the gender thing is not just a point of content in Delpy's career; it's also a hurdle to making films at all. She wrote her first screenplay at 16. "To me it was just a question of when," she says. "When is someone going to give me money?"
She's managed to make four films in the past five years in an industry where very few women direct, though as a French citizen (she also holds U.S. citizenship) she can benefit from public arts funding. She shares tales of trying to drum up private financing: "Like having financiers that were, like, gangsters, that wanted to put Jean-Claude Van Damme in The Countess [her biopic of Countess Erzebet Bathory]." Or the ones who wanted her to come spend a weekend in Russia. "I was like, what is that? Am I a hooker? What am I gonna have to do?" Delpy said, laughing.
Her no-nonsense style extends to her directing, she says. "I like to be direct, and usually actors like me. I treat all the same." But even that has a bit of a gendered element: "You have to be careful as a woman when you direct movies, you can never lose it on set, you can never raise your voice, you can never do anything. So you have to be actually less crazy than everyone else."