The relationship between France and the US, worldly aunt and brash godson of western civilisation’s happy family, is nowhere better illustrated than in Julie Delpy’s romantic comedy Two Days in Paris. Actually, better to forget that unhelpful label. There is comedy, but not a great deal of romance in the noxious Parisian air as Delpy and her co-star Adam Goldberg gradually tear each other to pieces in the course of an emotionally fraught weekend.

The French-American couple can easily be read as metaphors for their respective native lands. Delpy is spontaneous, owlishly beautiful, casual with her eroticism and volatile in her politics. Goldberg is uptight and upright, puritanical and proper, at the same time defensive and patronising. He cannot bear her emotional briskness; she cannot abide his sentimental moralising, preferring to bask in the sullied waters of sexual cynicism: “I want to be your friend when we break up. Whenever we break up. If we break up.” It’s a telling descent into unwilled qualification. He thinks it’s forever; she is passing the time.

The vagaries of love are just one arena in which this essential difference of sensibility between France and the US has made itself felt. Another recent example, of greater import, was in the scarcely less entangled field of geopolitics, in the build-up to the Iraq war. Blitzkrieg on terror versus diplomatic soft-soap: this was no political debate, it was the irreconcilable conflict between two national cultures.

And yet, like the argumentative lovers in Delpy’s film, the two countries have a fatal propensity to fall in love with each other. This has been captured on celluloid before, most brilliantly in Stanley Donen’s Funny Face, in which Audrey Hepburn – spontaneous, owlishly beautiful, etc etc – finds the pretentious antics of a black-polo-necked Parisian philosopher irresistible before she finds solace, and her sanity, in the arms of Fred Astaire, who would have been a down-to-earth, clear-thinking logical positivist if this had been a Tom Stoppard play, but in this case merely wins the girl by dancing like a divinity.

The US loves France when she (of course she is a she) is at her most impenetrable. The triumph in American academe of opaque philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, whose ability to tease and torture young minds was an affront to the American lust for clarity and certitude, was a clear example of this. Unkind observers described the export of Derrida as France’s revenge for Jerry Lewis, whose early films filled many a late-night Parisian movie theatre. France loves America when it goofs off. And when a goofy American pastiches a pretentious Frenchman, jackpots are hit: just ask Quentin Tarantino.

One person who understands this bewildering courtship more than most is Delpy herself, whose ambivalence over the defining characteristics of both countries is evident throughout Two Days in Paris, which she wrote and directed herself. Delpy splits her time roughly equally between Paris and Los Angeles, and has a pretty shrewd understanding of the mutual cultural fascination.

I met her for coffee in London just before the film’s release, and she was a winning combination of two cultures: French in her rasping smoker’s laugh and trenchant political polemicising; as American as a hot dog in her easy, humour and sunny demeanour. She freely admits to feeling torn, loving Paris for its “liberal, funny, crazy people”, but despising it (as in the film) for its casual and seemingly acceptable racism. Out west, she loves Americans’ ability to laugh at themselves, but remains puzzled by their sexual hypocrisy, her mockery of which gives Two Days its best line: “It was a blow-job that brought down America’s last chance of a healthy democracy.”

Delpy is a talent to watch. She describes how she attended film school in New York to learn the rudiments of film direction, barely acknowledging that she had worked as an actor with two masters of the craft – Jean-Luc Godard and Krzysztof Kieslowski – before she had reached the age of 25.

“You can never be too humble in the learning process,” she explains.

She made Two Days because of, rather than in spite of, its superficial similarity to the highly acclaimed duo of films that helped make her name, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, because “that was the only way they would give me the money. I just didn’t realise how little money.” Two Days was shot in four weeks. What she really wants to make, she says, is War and Peace.

Delpy, a luminous 37, is also bracingly realistic about the imperatives of Hollywood, recognising that she is too old to play a romantic lead (“unless my partner is 75”) and lamenting the fact that the star vehicles she has made happened to be “bad ones”. Her own next feature is a 16th-century drama, “about murder, cruelty, vanity and power”. When I ask if she plans to do everything this time too, she has the graciousness to look sheepish. “I’m writing, directing and starring in it. But I love editing so much. And I’ve already written the music.”

Delpy is a modern film star – global in her sensibility, immodest in ambition, full of plans and full of the knowledge of the obstacles in her path. Two Days in Paris is a modern movie, in the same way that Annie Hall was a modern movie for a different era. It is edgy and scabrous and wears its essentially dark theme with deceptive charm. It has nothing in common with romantic comedy as we have come to know it, because this is a film about two psychologies that cannot leave each other alone, yet cannot ultimately face a lifetime together. The worldly aunt and the brash godson will forever be bickering, both on screen and off.

peter.aspden@ft.com

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article