Maybe the most amusing thing about this must-see movie is that Julie Delpy — the enormously simpatico French actress who wrote, directed, edited and scored it, and who stars in it with Adam Goldberg — raised the money to make it by telling prospective backers that what she had in mind was a film along the lines of "Before Sunset," the 2004 Richard Linklater picture in which she starred with Ethan Hawke. This was a shrewd pitch. "Before Sunset" (the sequel to Linklater's 1995 "Before Sunrise," in which Delpy and Hawke also starred) was cheap to make — it consisted of two people walking and talking their way around Paris, their peregrinations captured by the director in glorious long takes. But the talk was marvelously alive; it felt as if the actors were making it up as they went along, although the lines were too honed for that to have been the case. The movie was a resonant succès d'estime — a small classic with a unique romantic glow.
By suggesting that the "Before Sunset" magic could be conjured again, even without the participation of Linklater and Hawke (with whom she had co-scripted that picture and shared a subsequent Oscar nomination), Delpy got her funding. (It was less than $200,000.) Then she went out and made this blazingly funny relationship movie, which is a remarkable accomplishment on a level all its own.
The plot is simple. Marion (Delpy), a French photographer, and her boyfriend, Jack (Goldberg), an American interior designer, have just finished a two-week vacation in Venice and are on their way back to their home in New York. Before flying out, though, they'll be spending two days in her hometown of Paris. They've been together for two years, and they feel committed to one another; but they're still very different people. Jack is a wisecracking urban neurotic, a hypochondriac who fears food-poisoning in foreign parts and always feels a migraine coming on. He's also grindingly egocentric: Waiting in line for a taxi, he tells a group of lost American tourists that the Louvre is actually too nearby to justify cab fare, and directs them down the street and around a corner. Actually he has no idea where the Louvre is, but he gets the next taxi, which is all that matters.
Marion, on the other hand, is sweet and generally serene, an angel of accommodation. Or so she seems to Jack, and to us at first. When they're together on her native turf, though, he begins to see her in a new and disturbing perspective. Everywhere they go, whether to a party with her old friends or just walking down the street, they seem to encounter one or another of Marion's ex-lovers. There appear to have been many. One of these former swains, in the worldly European manner, shares a sexual anecdote about her with Jack; another one appears in a photo he finds in one of her old books — a party picture of a naked guy with a balloon attached to what is usually a balloon-free appendage. Jack grows paranoid. Since he only speaks about 10 words of French, all of them badly, he's frozen out of the verbal interaction on which he thrives and begins to think that everyone is laughing at him. He's not entirely wrong.
He makes a half-hearted attempt to enjoy Paris, though, dragging Marion off to the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery to see the grave of Jim Morrison. (He has no interest in the Doors, he admits — he's just "a huge Val Kilmer fan.") But then, when they're in a restaurant, Marion spots another of her exes, a cad who once coldly dumped her. As Jack watches in absolute bafflement, she begins to berate the man, and soon her goading escalates into a near-fistfight, which gets them bounced from the premises. Jack is appalled — who is this woman he thought he knew so well?
The movie is an eloquent demonstration of the chaos of relationships both romantic and familial, and of the troublesome interpenetration of our past and present selves. It is also hilarious virtually from start to finish. Unlike "Before Sunset," in which the liberated flow of the language couldn't really conceal the elegance of its artifice, the dialogue here has the messy splutters and miscues of real interaction, and the comedy arises out of what we recognize to be something very like real life. Delpy, who plays her age (35 at the time of filming) with rumpled élan, is a master of throwaway lines and stuttery emotions; and Goldberg (her actual ex-boyfriend) has possibly never been as caustically funny as he is here — with his snarly smile and air of permanent exasperation, he's an uproarious study in transatlantic cultural panic.
Can Jack and Marion's relationship be saved? Can anybody's? Are romantic liaisons not all basically the same, "with ups and downs," as Marion says, " ... and in-betweens, mostly"?
Be sure to check out Kurt Loder's review of "The Nanny Diaries," also opening Friday (August 24).
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