"My son is sick right now, covered in zits. It's not contagious — I mean, it's contagious, but don't worry: Grown-ups don't catch it. It's called mouth-foot-and-butt disease or something."
Julie Delpy materializes on the patio of Hollywood's Chateau Marmont on a wave of nervous energy. Hair pinned up away from her makeup-free face, she looks like what she is: a worn-out working mom. She continues, without stopping to take a breath: "They get everything from preschool, wherever he meets other kids. They're dirty little things. So cute, though. When he's sick, he's all curled up, and he wants Mommy all the time. It's like my favorite thing. It's horrible." She pauses. "I shouldn't say that; it's like the most dysfunctional thing I could say."
This is how Delpy talks: in full paragraphs, spat out at run-on speed, her mouth like a scampering toddler that's always one step ahead of the exhausted caretaker of her rational mind. Which is not to say that the way she presents herself is unconscious. Her paragraphs almost always conclude with a punchline — comic, provocative, insightful, or a combination of the three — it just sometimes takes a while to get there.
The daughter of French theater radicals, Delpy, now 42, began acting as a teenager, and by her mid-twenties had worked with a roster of European masters (Jean-Luc Godard, Leos Carax, Krzysztof Kieslowski) that could fill a full and admirable career. She says she threatened her status as all-purpose muse by daring to speak out about casting couch culture. "In France, when I started talking about the fact that at 13, people would hit on me — which I think is pedophilia — people were like, 'Who do you think you are?'" Delpy reminisces. "It destroyed my career. It destroyed it. The press was against me, saying I was a bitch, basically, a horrible person to dare to accuse these directors of being bad for wanting to have sex with a 12-year-old. That was the time, you know. '80s France."
She moved to the States in 1990 and started appearing in American movies: as a lady-in-waiting in the Charlie Sheen-starring Three Musketeers, as a hooker in Roger Avary's Killing Zoe, and finally, as the introspective, ethereal French student Celine opposite Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklatter's Before Sunrise. Sunrise and its 2004 sequel, Before Sunset, are without question the most significant American films of Delpy's acting career. The former cemented her in '90s pop culture as a kind of hot foreign exchange student imparting Euro cred to the American indie scene — every photograph of her from this time a study in sex as a dialogue between death and eternal youth, all gap-tooth pout and cigarettes. Before Sunset earned her an Oscar nomination, and kick-started her own filmmaking career.
Delpy skewers her reputation for speaking the truth to the point of self-sabotage in 2 Days in New York, her third effort as writer-director-star, a sequel to her 2007 indie hit and directorial debut, 2 Days in Paris, and the reason why she has left her sick kid to have lunch with me. Delpy's character, Marion, a former Village Voice photographer whose art career is riding on a major gallery show, is introduced at the opening to an important critic. Over the course of about two minutes, what begins and should end as an exchange of bullshit pleasantries is pushed by Marion into a self-defeating outburst. The artist tries to goad the critic to go beyond passive-aggressive quasi-praise into stating his honest, unvarnished opinion, only to go way too far with her own "honesty," which increasingly manifests itself as childish hostility. "You can just say it — you hate my show," Marion says. Before he can take her up on the offer, she spits, "And it's good because I want to tell you something: Everyone hates you!"
A film about a neurotic creative navigating tricky issues of love and domesticity in Manhattan, featuring a protagonist who intermittently wears big black-frame glasses and is played by a performer who is also the film's writer and director, 2 Days in New York all but begs for Woody Allen comparisons. Certainly, Delpy's portrayal of Marion's hapless attempts to balance work and artistic ambition with the emotional and logistical demands of family brings to mind a famous Allen self-deprecation: "The only thing standing between me and greatness is me."
But though Delpy's stridency has sometimes seemed to be her kryptonite, her tendency to insistently, sometimes foolishly, push any given dialogue just past the point of politesse has also been her secret weapon. There are few people in the film industry who get to play by their own rules; most of them are men, and pretty much all of them have proven capable of making money for someone else. None of them are beautiful French actresses who have never starred in a mainstream hit film. And yet Delpy has learned, with savvy, how to do exactly what she wants to, under the guise of doing what's expected of her.
The next step is breaking free of those expectations.
In 1994, when she was 24, Delpy told GQ that she was writing a film to direct and star in, featuring a heroine who was "not evil, not slave, not bitch, not mistress. I can do better than be naked on top of somebody." This quote appeared in a spread whose raison d'être was to dress actresses in menswear.
More than a decade would pass before she'd direct a feature. "No one wanted to finance my films," she says simply. At one point, "before I was an actual director," she sent a producer a script with a man's name on it, just to see what would happen. "That's what Colette did," she shrugs. "But that was, like, 120 years ago!"
She hates being lumped in with "women filmmakers," she says. "By making it obvious that it's rare, you also minimize my work." But she also talks at length about gender discrimination in the film industry, on both sides of the Atlantic. She accuses powerful French film entities — the Cannes Film Festival, the financing and sales outfit Wild Bunch — of being dominated by a jockish mentality. "In French, we call them 'footeur' — 'footeur' means they watch soccer," she says. Hollywood is not much better. "Sometimes, I go to meetings, and people will ask me if I know what a dolly is," she says. At least in L.A., she rationalizes it as part of the local corporate culture.