When it comes to making a film about the French/American culture clash there could be no one better qualified than Julie Delpy. As a resident of the US for the past 21 years, the French actress has heard all the cliches and still shakes her head when it comes to the stereotypes Americans have of her native countrymen.
“A lot of Americans think we don’t fart in France,” Delpy says with a laugh over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “They have this idea that the French are so perfect ... that the French people are so sophisticated and intellectual, but in fact we have everything in France. We have trailer trash, working class ... crazy inbred.”
Cue Two Days in New York, a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy in which the French come across as anything but chic, Chanel-wearing intellectuals.
The film is a sequel to Delpy’s 1997 feature Two Days in Paris, in which her character, Marion, travels to the City of Love with her American boyfriend, Jack (Adam Goldberg).
Five years on and the harried photographer has broken up with Jack and is now living in the Big Apple with their son, her lover Mingus, a hip talk-radio host played by Chris Rock, and his young daughter.
The blended family live a cosy life but when Marion’s father, Jeannot, sister Rose and her boyfriend Manu, descend on them unceremoniously all kinds of mayhem ensues — and those stereotypes are upturned.
Most of the laughs indeed come courtesy of the uncouth Jeannot, who we first meet at the airport while he’s being questioned by customs officers for hiding several pounds of French sausage under his clothes. Then there’s Manu, who is obsessed by Mingus’ colour and spends the entire trip asking him a stream of inappropriate questions, like why he’s the only black guy not to smoke dope.
“Some Americans who think they know intellectual French cinema were offended by the film, which is really funny because when you see some of the films they like, you’re like ‘Oh, that’s what you think is intellectual?’” Delpy says. “It’s snobbish bullshit.”
For 42-year-old Delpy, perhaps best known for starring in Richard Linklater’s films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, part of the reason for making a sequel to the well-received Two Days in Paris was because she wanted to develop her characters further.
“People say things get simpler as you get older but it’s not true, things get more complicated,” she says. “You have more logistics, you get involved in another relationship, you have another kid ...
“I guess I wanted to explore how people deal with those situations.”
And she handles it all with a sense of humour that, perhaps not surprisingly, is often compared to Woody Allen’s.
I wonder how, as a fledgling director, Delpy handles such comparisons.
“Well, you know he is my lover?” she says with a laugh before adding: “I’ve always loved his films and it’s an incredible compliment that people would even think that my film vaguely resembles Woody Allen’s because he’s amazing.
“If I even had a tenth of his career and his talent I would be very happy. But I don’t think it’s fair to him because I think his films are a bit more complex and better than mine.”
Delpy accepts, however, that like Allen she is similarly obsessed with “relationships, death, sex, diseases, dying ...”
Similarly her characters are just as quirky, in particular the loopy Jeannot, played by her real-life father, Albert, who Delpy says had no problem being directed by his daughter.
“He’s very different in real life to the character in the film,” Delpy says of the acclaimed actor and theatre director. “He’s more introverted in real life. But he is a very jovial person and he’s very fearless. Nothing scares him .(.(. not even showing his ass to his daughter.”
Delpy says she wrote the part specifically for her father (who also appeared, along with her mother, Marie Pillet, in the previous film). “I know who he is, and what he’s capable of,” she says.
So, too, as a long-time fan of his stand-up, Delpy always had comedian Rock in mind to play, ironically, the straight man.
“I think for Chris, people always give him the same stuff,” she says of Rock, who was last on the big screen voicing the character of Marty the zebra in Madagascar 3.
“I thought it would be interesting to play kind of like a real character — and he played the game, he played the straight man.”
Delpy admits she has a habit of writing about what she knows, drawing inspiration from her family and friends.
Such was the case with her next film, Skylab — screening next month as part of PIAF’s Lotterywest Film Festival — which centres on a family get-together on the eve of the projected crash of NASA’s Skylab.
“It’s a film very much inspired by French families in the 1970s, when kids got slapped and people were talking a lot about politics at the time,” Delpy says.
“It’s about a moment in time that’s gone forever. It’s a little bit about my childhood and what I remember. It’s a quite personal film — much more than Two Days in New York.”
I can’t help but wonder how her family feel about that.
“The only ones who didn’t like the film were the ones I didn’t portray,” she says with a laugh.
“I found that being badly portrayed is actually better than not being portrayed at all.
Two Days in New York opens on Thursday. Skylab is on at Somerville from December 17