[I’ve been thinking about] reincarnation and where all the new souls come through over time. Everybody says they have been the reincarnation of Cleopatra or Alexander the Great. I always want to tell them they were probably some dumb fuck like everybody else.
— Celine (Julie Delpy), Waking Life
Julie Delpy proves something of a multi-threat talent in 2 Days in Paris. She not only wrote and directed it, but also serves as star, singer, and music composer. If this is news to viewers who considered her “merely” the perfect foil for Ethan Hawke or muse for Richard Linklater, the resulting movie — a mismatch romance of the bitter, slightly horrifying sort — is imperfect.
That’s not to say that 2 Days in Paris is a disappointment, or even that Delpy’s casting of her own cat, Max, as a cat named Jean-Luc, feels rather like too much. It is to say that this mostly comic study of two people coming apart is by turns lumpy and lovely, perverse and prosaic. Whenever it looks about to be frothy, it turns dark in a peculiar and sometimes unpleasant way; though it mostly sends up the conventions that Woody Allen made familiar, it doesn’t exactly improve on them, but does underline what makes them annoying.
The film initially takes the perspective of Marion (Delpy), whose voiceover describes an opening train ride from Venice (“The city that is over water and will end up underwater”) to Paris, home of her parents. She and Jack (Adam Goldberg), she says, have shared “Two years of happiness with ups and downs and in-betweens, mostly.” As they emerge from the train into bright light, they joke with one another in a lived-in, vaguely hostile manner. When Jack worries about imminent rain, she agrees to call a taxi, “because you’re made of sugar.” The taxi queue is lengthy, headed by a crew of tourists in pursuit of Da Vinci Code landmarks and wearing “Bush-Cheney 04” t-shirts. Plainly, they’re deserving of mild abuse, which Jack proceeds to heap on them by giving bad directions and watching them leave the taxi line, walking in a sweaty-faced, many-legged clump.
While Marion giggles as she remonstrates such behavior, you note a vague imbalance in their exchanges, as if they’re competing to be clever, or maybe just weary of being clever. Marion, it turns out, is a photographer, which is odd, as she says, because she has a defect in her retina that distorts her “vision of the world.” A flashback to her childhood and point of view suggests just how weird this view is, while it also reveals her mother’s part in her career choice, as she gave young Marion a camera in order to give her mobility (previously, the girl was struck still by her “defect”-inspired desire to capture the images before her). It’s a cutesy metaphor, but not unbearable. And besides, it turns out not to be her defining characteristic. That, alas, is her dreary insecurity and voracious will to be desired by every man who comes within flirting distance.
This last is increasingly unnerving for Jack, who turns out to be mightily possessive (who knew!?). On one hand, Marion is something of an opposite of her tranquil, generous sister Rose (Alexia Landeau), seeking the opposite of her parents’ long-term coziness. Whether that opposite must be no-relationship, as she looks determined to achieve with Jack, or just something different, is not clear, partly because the film takes up his point of view once he meets the parents, Anna and Jeannot (played by Delpy’s parents, Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy). This makes some sense — Jack’s the outsider, the glib Jewish American who doesn’t quite appreciate their humor, their language, or their ostensible insularity or jokes at his expense (now he’s the equivalent of the tourists he ridiculed earlier). Upset when he learns Marion has shared with the fam a photo of him, naked with balloons on his penis, Jack is even unhappier when he discovers a similar photo of an old boyfriend on a shelf in her old apartment, the one upstairs from her parents.
Not only is he not The First, but he’s also not so only-adored as he once thought. When he sees her in action — smiley and speaking French when meeting old beaus on the sidewalk or at a party — Jack descends into something like misery (he’s so depressed and anxious throughout the film, it’s not always easy to tell when his mood changes). While some of his upsets are straight-up goofy (he accidentally puts her rectal thermometer in his mouth), others speak to ongoing tensions and stereotypes between cultures: the French are snooty, sensual, and intellectual (being with Marion is “like dating public television,” Jack teases), and Americans are awkward and self-absorbed. “I’m American,” huffs Jack, “That’s what makes me me. Our religion is private property.” Ugly, maybe. Unsurprising, certainly.
When at last the couple melts down and splits up — at least temporarily — Jack finds himself alone in a fast food restaurant, facing young Lukas (Daniel Brühl), an activist in search of a site to terrorize. “You seem a bit stressed out,” the kid observes of his table-mate, then identifies himself as a “fairy” and instructs Jack to “Go back to her.” If Jack doesn’t exactly see himself in this skewed mirror, he might see the broader implications of arrogance and egotistical action. His revelation, though, seems only to exacerbate the problem of Marion. Even if Jack is imagining it, her evolving lunacy remains bleak.