This week, a film that was a wonderful surprise rather than the big disappointment that was “Moonrise Kingdom.” I went to see Julie Delpy’s “2 Days in New York” on a whim: the employee at the ticket desk at the Odeon Covent Garden actually tried to talk me out of it. She thought I would prefer “Jeff Who Lives At Home”: although she hadn’t seen it, she had seen “2 Days in New York” and didn’t like it. Happily, like any self-respecting film critic, I had to see the film for myself. On a side note, bravo, Odeon Covent Garden, for being a bright spark in an overall grim world of chain cinemas: tastes may differ, but the people who work there clearly have a genuine interest in auteur cinema. When I went to see “Moonrise Kingdom” there, the man who sold me the ticket was counting the minutes to the end of his shift so he too could see the latest Wes Anderson. Staff at Covent Garden even take special care when preparing your hot drinks: nothing but milk and Cadbury’s in their hot chocolate, frothed to perfection.
I rarely laugh out loud when I watch a film alone, but there I was in a cinema, surrounded by strangers, chortling unselfconsciously at Julie Delpy’s wonderfully refreshing comedy. Delpy herself stars as Marion, an expatriate Frenchwoman living in New York with her boyfriend Mingus (played by Chris Rock) and their two children from different marriages. Their harmonious life is hilariously disrupted when Marion’s father and sister come over from Paris for a visit. Delpy’s vision of nightmare French house guests is permissible since she herself is French: and of course, some will be able to identify the elements of truth beneath the caricature of smelly, cheese-scoffing socialists with a free-and-easy attitude to sex. That is part of the charm of Delpy’s films: while characters and situations are exaggerated to entertain us, we can imagine the reality that inspired them. In one of the most memorable scenes, Marion and Mingus are woken up by Marion’s sister and boyfriend’s late-night return, and sit up in bed, listening in horror as the pair proceed to make suspicious noises together in the adjacent bathroom, involving Mingus’s electric toothbrush. Delpy’s film is like “Seinfeld” in unexpectedly finding comedy in everyday details; like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with characters too quick to attack each other; and like Woody Allen when Marion obsesses to the point of panic attacks, and babbles her way through difficult situations.
I had missed seeing “2 Days in Paris,” vaguely thinking that it would be too silly or that I wouldn’t enjoy a hackneyed caricature of an American in Paris. Having seen “2 Days in New York,” I quickly sought out the DVD of the earlier film, and found one just as charming as its sequel, yet sufficiently different. In “2 Days in Paris,” Marion was with an American boyfriend, Jack, who was less caricatured than the French in her films, but as much a worrier as Marion herself. While the later film showed Marion’s family meeting her boyfriend in New York, here the American boyfriend was a visitor to Paris, meeting her family for the first time. Having owned a pet rabbit as a child, Jack is immediately confronted with the horror scenario for the visitor to the continent: Marion’s father serves him rabbit (with carrots, and Jack ironically inquires whether they threw the rabbit’s toys into the pot, as well as its favourite food). Charmingly, there is a continuity of characters between the two films, beyond Delpy’s own: her father (played by the director’s real father, Albert Delpy) and her sister Rose (more sympathetic here than in New York, while Marion is perhaps less sympathetic in Paris).
What links the two films is their portrayal of culture shock in cross-cultural relationships: far from being egotistical films by Delpy about herself and her family, the films in fact show a wonderful degree of empathy for her American boyfriends. These men are both generally well-adjusted, good partners to Marion (Mingus more so than Jack), and keen to be on good terms with her family. Faced with people (including ex-boyfriends) whose language and culture are different, the men quickly become paranoid, assuming (sometimes rightly) that they are being made fun of, or that there is something fishy going on. Most films about Franco-American relations like to present Americans as the loud and annoying ones; Delpy, on the contrary, enjoys observing her own culture from the outside. To a degree, she does put the audience in her position as she becomes exasperated with her family. More often, though, the audience is on the side of the calm and polite American looking on incredulously at familial shouting matches in a foreign tongue, wondering what could possibly have caused such furious disagreement. Anyone who has been in a foreign country, or surrounded by foreign guests, will understand something of the American boyfriends’ experiences in this film. Anyone who has felt the exasperation of a grown-up child spending time with their own parents and siblings, will understand something of Marion’s position. These are films which may be too caricatured and chaotic for some people’s tastes, but for my part I found them delightfully different and often hilarious.