Full disclosure: I'm a little bit in love with Julie Delpy, sometimes unaccountably so. She's neurotic, fretful, and sharp-tongued, a femme fatale with a French accent and Woody Allen specs. Her first film as a director was a mess. And yet she keeps growing on me, a habit I just can't seem to break.
With Ethan Hawke, in "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" (two films so gracefully performed and intuitively conceived they function for me almost as memories), Delpy achieved a kind of perfect tentativeness, dissembling until the crucial, heady moment when the skein slipped off. She was suddenly vulnerable — as Hawke had been all along, however gray his face — playing a ditty on her guitar, delaying one more moment. Her debut behind the camera, an affably half-baked tartlet of Franco-American misunderstanding called "2 Days in Paris" (2007), mustered none of this deftness, unfortunately. "Let me translate the humor to you," Delpy's besieged photographer, Marion, tells her doubtful boyfriend (Adam Goldberg) near the end of the film. "Please, Julie," I called out in response. "Be my guest."
Foolish if inoffensive, "2 Days in Paris" takes its theme (sorry, THEME) — the sexual frankness of the French, the prudishness of Americans — and beats it half to death with a baguette and a leg of lamb. To wit, lewd artwork in a chic gallery, flirtations with exes and cabbies, leering subway creeps, a randy mother, "fascist vaginas." (There's much more where that came from, but you get the idea.) Coupled with a needlessly hectic denouement and the opening's twee voiceover, shuffled off the soundtrack like a failed hand of cards by minute twenty, this quickly becomes enervating. Neither Delpy's loopy charm nor Goldberg's attempt at channeling "The Out-of-Towners" can salvage what is ultimately a mildly funny one-liner stretched to feature length.
"2 Days in Paris" does one thing, and one thing only, quite brilliantly. It subtly replicates the experience of being an American abroad. Despite being half in French, there are no subtitles, submerging the Anglophone viewer in the same linguistic twilight zone as Goldberg's character. I caught enough of the French to realize that much of the dialogue is quotidian ("Did you already wash up?" "You gave the cat foie gras?"), but when the vocabulary got too Fourth Semester of College and the delivery too speedy to follow, trying to divine the meaning through expression and gesture remained a rare pleasure. This was my life raft, exemplified by a family lunch early in the film that displayed the germ of Delpy's directorial talent: the sidelong glance I needed to keep my unrequited crush afloat.
Delpy's follow-up, "2 Days in New York" — now in theatres and available on VOD — is in fact much closer to a pure sequel than I expected. It picks up Marion's thread a few years on, after she and the boyfriend have returned from Paris, had a baby, and split up. Now she's with the genial, twice-divorced Mingus (an excellent but underutilized Chris Rock), a talk radio personality and, given what ensues when Marion's father, sister, and ex-boyfriend come to town, a sure bet for future sainthood. All of these developments worried me, a feeling not aided by the (mercifully brief) puppet-accompanied opening monologue. As it happens, though, my anxiety was mostly misplaced. "2 Days in New York" may be a trifle, but it turns out to be a surprisingly subtle one, wryly funny and more than a little sad.
Delpy's turns under Linklater's direction proved that her most confident register as an actress is somewhere in the space between gravity and levity: she's a capable comedienne, but only when the humor seems poised to spin into her darker recesses, knocked off its fragile axis. The same holds true of Delpy the director. Where "2 Days in Paris" quickly exhausted its self-styled farce, "2 Days in New York" is run through with reminiscences and doubts that enliven Marion's self-defeating errors, the absurdity all the more potent for verging on the painful. The gags — pleading with a telephone operator, slipping out of an awkward moment in front of the kids — have a kind of rumpled maturity, only slightly more ludicrous than real life. Even the one truly insane gambit, a creepy cameo that boldly lampoons the least likable persona in cinema, comes off brilliantly. (No spoilers: you'll have to see the movie or search elsewhere to find out who it is, though I'll admit to grudging admiration for said performer's gameness.)
Delpy still can't quite figure out how to end a movie, and "2 Days in New York," like its predecessor, rushes headlong to the closing credits; the finale practically flickers, as though shot at a few more frames per second. Along with her woeful penchant for voiceover, this stylistic tic suggests a filmmaker still struggling for control of the medium — and, even worse, growing tired of her own picture. Here's to hoping that the next "2 Days" in Marion's harried life will evince a little more patience. I'm still enough in love to keep waiting.