Finding her spirit in Hollywood

French connection

Finding her spirit in Hollywood

Julie Delpy has many funny lines in the new film Before Midnight, but the funniest one — in which she mockingly runs through her boyfriend’s lackluster sexual routine, a line that starts with “Kissy, kissy” and ends with the sound of snoring and is otherwise far too graphic to repeat here — is delivered with such vigorous crudeness that I couldn’t resist asking her to recite it for me in person. Which she did, over and over.

Each time she repeated it, her enjoyment increased considerably. “That is so much fun to say!” she said. In the scene, her character, Celine, is fighting with her novelist boyfriend, Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke), and she is moving in for the kill. “The way you write in your book, people come up to me and think I make love to some wildcat Henry Miller type...Ha! You like to have sex the exact same way every time” — “Kissy, kissy,” sound of snoring, et cetera — “You’re no Henry Miller on any level.”

Before Midnight is the third film in a trilogy directed by Richard Linklater, which began with Before Sunrise in 1995. In that film, the young American Jesse meets the French Celine on a train, and in the second film, Before Sunset, they are reunited in Paris after nine years. In the new film, nine more years have passed, and Jesse and Celine are a couple with twin girls. If you’ve ever wondered what a film co-directed by Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman might look like — Scenes From a Marriage by way of Annie Hall — Before Midnight is about as close as you will get.

Delpy has been a star in Europe for nearly 30 years, since Jean-Luc Godard cast her in the film Detective when she was 14. But she has remained relatively unknown in the US — and what fame she has here is thanks mostly to Linklater’s trilogy. The films are lauded, among other things, for their seemingly off-the-cuff performances, and that has led some to assume that Delpy and Hawke are essentially playing themselves. Linklater takes issue with that idea. “It’s a disservice to Julie and to Ethan to say that what they are doing is improvisation,” he says. “We want to give the impression that we’ve just turned on a camera and they riff, but I can’t think of one line that was not in the script. They’re acting, and it’s the most difficult thing an actor can do, to appear so natural.”

Still, Delpy and Celine share certain qualities — a raunchy sense of humour, a rather prim way of dressing (call it Bohemian schoolteacher), an unyielding feminism and fierce advocacy for their beliefs — that can be exhilarating or alienating, depending on your point of view. At one point in Before Midnight, Jesse talks about feeling depressed when he sees their daughters fighting. Celine says she sees beautiful energy. “That’s because you see anger as a positive emotion,” he tells her.

Delpy has always been similarly fearless about expressing herself and her ideas. “Even if I’m wrong, I don’t care. What matters is I do it.” As for Celine, “She is very flawed, which is appealing to other women who are strong. I don’t know about men, it could be scary for them.”

Before Sunrise was written by Linklater and Kim Krizan before Hawke and Delpy were cast. The intention was to make the central relationship feel as natural as possible, so after Linklater cast his actors, the three rewrote the film together.

Delpy, who is lovely if somewhat amorphous in the first film, begins to harden into something sharp and brilliant in the second. By Before Midnight, it suddenly feels as if the whole trilogy were secretly about Celine all along. Delpy is naturally combative and funny, and as she has become more confident, so has Celine. “Richard first hired me, in some ways, because he wanted the female voice to be as strong as the male voice — if not stronger.”

Growing up in Paris, Delpy made her first short film at 12. She wasn’t a natural exhibitionist like her parents, actors in avant-garde theatre. “I’m much tamer than they were,” she said. “They were wild, crazy people. I know the word has been overused, but intellectually they were true anarchists — you don’t follow one line, no one can format you, you’re a unique individual with a unique mind.”

Delpy wrote her first screenplay at 16, which a French publisher offered to turn into a novel. “It never happened, but that gave me confidence in my writing,” she said. “Then I shot a film with Sam Shepard” — Voyager, in 1991 — “and I read him a line from the script — one line! — and he said: ‘You’re a pretty girl. Just stay that.’ ” Delpy laughs. “So then I recoiled, and I stopped writing.”

She later found a mentor in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, who, beginning in 1993, cast her in his Three Colors trilogy. “He was very supportive of women directors, and he really pushed me to direct and write,” said Delpy. By the time she met Hawke and Linklater, she had acted in a few undistinguished American films (Killing Zoe and The Three Musketeers), and she was thoroughly frustrated.

In Before Midnight, Celine tells Jesse that her deepest fear is that every man wants to turn her into a housewife. It’s a feeling Delpy shares, though in her case it has more to do with circumstance than with her partner. Delpy is finally making a living as a writer and director, but it’s not a plush life. Despite living in Los Angeles for more than a decade, she’s still an outsider in Hollywood. She gets her films financed in France, where they “have real money for indie films, and they aren’t afraid of women directors.” Hollywood, she believes, isn’t interested in the kind of emotional films she wants to make.

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