In a week when a young Frenchman resisted the call to “kiss the ass” of a bluff American, Wind Back Wednesday sojourns to 2004 and a young Frenchwoman resisting the same call.
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN JULIE DELPY
Julie Delpy was a little stunned recently to discover that contrary to a lifetime’s suspicion, she has not been slowly dying.
This was not news necessarily greeted with shouts of happiness by the 34 year old French actress who is notoriously and self-confessedly verging on the hypochondriac.
The child of two actors, who for the past decade has divided her time between Paris and the least French of American cities, Los Angeles, Delpy gave up dairy some years back, certain that it was giving her migraines, does not eat chocolate for the same reason and eschews alcohol.
She once collapsed at a film premiere in Cannes (“a lack of calcium,” she later explained), spent some time in callipers as a child due to inward turning feet and only a few weeks ago came down with chicken pox.
Pale and small, she has about her an air of delicacy and she’s spoken often of her health tribulations. After she tells me that she quit smoking 10 days ago I ask her how she’s coping.
“Hmm. I’m a little high strung, a bit more than normal,” Delpy says in English that, apart from a stray word, is almost accentless or at least Euro-neutral, the result of a half American life since moving to New York in 1990. “And I’m chewing gum like a maniac to the point where I give myself a headache. I chew like three packs a day.”
It’s sugar-less gum. Oh dear. “I’ll probably get sick from it,” she mutters.
I can’t resist, though it’s like offering sweets to a diabetic, and tell her that according to the health warnings on the packets if you have too much sugar-less gum a day it has a laxative effect.
“Really? I didn’t know that,” she says with a note of worry before laughing, both at me and herself. “I don’t have that problem if it makes you feel better.”
Still, this hovering spectre of ill health, as much as a career which saw her star in Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: White, Agnieska Holland’s Europa Europa and Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective before she was 25, has defined her in many ways, not least to herself. Until now.
“You know what, I talked to my mum about that and she said ‘Julie you were the healthiest child ever’,” Delpy says with another loud laugh. “I always see myself as this dying person but I’m the only person who gets chicken pox, gets three spots and gets over it in a week. As an adult!
“My mother said ‘you were super healthy, always eating twice as much as any other kid, never sick, never broke a bone, never had a problem ever. Why are you going around saying you were this poor creature? It’s so untrue. You would kill other children if you had to eat’.”
During a conversation that spreads over two days, while she wanders about her LA apartment trying to distract her cat Max from destroying more furniture, fielding calls from her boyfriend and refusing offers of cable TV deals from a door-to-door salesman (she doesn’t own a TV) Delpy admits this wasn’t easy news to digest.
“It changed my view,” she says. “I do have this image of myself like anything could kill me: I’ve got a cold Oh god am I going to make it? I always see myself as this person who could disappear any second, someone very vulnerable, but everyone around me sees me as someone very strong.”
There’s certainly strength there. Enough to survive a fluctuating career that hasn’t quite lived up to the promise of its beginning but has never sunk to outright turkeys.
Enough to be still fighting for her directorial debut in features, with two scripts she has written herself. Enough to have not only written and recorded an album but to have sold around 60,000 copies of it in Europe, with an American release due this year.
And perhaps most pertinently, enough strength to persist with a vision she shared with actor Ethan Hawke and director Richard Linklater 10 years ago when they made a small film about two people who meet, fall in love and leave each other in the course of one night in Vienna while seemingly never breaking off an intense dialogue.
That film, Before Sunrise, was a surprise hit considering it was a determinedly romantic film with few of the tropes of modern romances. Not to mention it was an American film with a strong European sensibility, Linklater not hiding his love of the work of Frenchman Eric Rohmer.
Before Sunrise ended with the young lovers Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) promising to meet again in six months. Now, in Before Sunset, Delpy, Hawke and Linklater have taken up the characters nine years after that farewell.
More condensed (the story happens in “real time” of around 90 minutes), more intensive (even more than the first film, which had a couple of peripheral characters and exchanges, this is a dialogue-packed two-hander) and more adult (the characters are now in their early 30s and shorn of much emotional puppy fat) it is nonetheless yet again an unabashed mixture of romanticism and a dash of cynicism.
That mixture, in different proportions maybe, sums up Delpy, who co-wrote the script with Linklater and Hawke. “I think Rick, Ethan and I are both extremely cynical and extremely romantic. I think it’s possible,” she says.
Delpy, whose private life has remained impressively private (“I’m very discreet about my boyfriends. But then I don’t go out with famous people so who cares?”) doesn’t believe in the longevity of relationships.
“I don’t think people need to stay together for life. I’m not against it but not for my life.”
But she does believe the intensity of the connection between Jesse and Celine could have survived nine years of separation or marriage.
“Why not, why not?” she demands. “Not the intensity of it but maybe it could have turned into something else. I believe it’s possible: my parents in France have loved each other for years, make each other laugh. I totally don’t believe that love is doomed but not like the kind of love that’s been described in a lot of cinema, the love you dream of as a little girl.”
She pauses for effect and then adds: “I always thought that Prince Charming would have a drinking problem.”
Not it seems that we should see too much of Delpy in Celine. Even though Delpy studied at NYU’s film school in her youth, is actively anti-Bush (recently having a very public fight with an avowed liberal producer who “kissed the ass” of a prominent Republican film director) and is not set for the altar, while Celine, when we meet her again in Before Sunset is living in Paris after studying in the USA, is passionately involved in political and social causes and harbouring serious doubts about the permanence or even worth of love.
“The truth is there’s a bit of me in Celine,” says Delpy with practised ease now, having had a decade of being asked about the comparison. “Not in the story or in the person but in the ideas she expresses. My issues and my life and the problems I have are very different from hers. I am almost the opposite of her.
“[But] it’s good to take a little bit of reality and make it fictional and then the fictional is more natural, very real, that this is how people are. It’s capturing a little bit of reality and faking it at the same time which is much more interesting. That’s why I hate reality shows because there’s no sublimation behind it.”
There’s a loud whirring noise in the background, like a blender, as she finishes and I ask Delpy if she’s making a cocktail. Well, it is early evening in LA.
“A cocktail?” she snorts. “No, it’s a helicopter. They always fly over. This is Los Angeles. They like to remind you that it’s dangerous. But I like it: it reminds me of Apocalypse Now.”
If there is any danger in LA for her it’s not from snipers or choppers. It’s the limited vision of those who can’t understand why she hasn’t “kissed the ass” or followed advice such as don’t make a sequel to an art house hit; make a mindless megaplex smash instead. And please, give up the idea of writing a script.
Does Delpy have a tactic for dealing with this?
“My tactic is to tell them to go fuck themselves,” she says firmly. “That would be my tactic. Pretty straightforward. People who try to play games with me I tell them to fuck themselves and it actually works well.
“They get very scared when you’re strong [because] they work on your vulnerability. If you’re a vulnerable actor, which you need to be, they will survive but if you’re not like that you destroy them because they only have power in your vulnerability. People who tell you ‘oh this script writing is not good’ you tell them to shut the fuck up and hang up and then they know. I left one of my agents because he thought it was a bad idea to write the script [for Before Sunset] with the two guys. What a waste of time he said. He was wrong.”
Consequently, it’s a matter of when not if one of Delpy’s writer/director projects happens. And when it does there’ll be precious little room for merely adequate it seems.
“As a director, I want everyone to enjoy the film but I also consider it an extreme gift that is given to me and if I fail I’ll kill myself,” Delpy says. “I’m serious and that’s why I will not fail when I direct a film: I don’t want to die.
“I’m not obsessive but for me failure is to make a film that I think stinks.”
It’s more than a bit odd to hear someone say if my film fails I’ll kill myself and then say but I’m not obsessive. Clearly more than a decade in the USA hasn’t wiped out the French in Julie Delpy.