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On the surface, 2 Days in Paris seems to be constructed entirely of cinematic readymades. There’s the City of Light itself, renowned as a backdrop to romance. And there’s writer-director Julie Delpy, playing a chatty, love-
loving young Frenchwoman, much as she did in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Plus there’s Adam Goldberg, seemingly substituting for Ethan Hawke as the oversensitive American abroad. It’s as if the film was designed to be mistaken for the third installment in Richard Linklater’s Before series.
Delpy, an NYU film school graduate, decided to accede to such expectations—to a point. Like Before Sunrise, 2 Days in Paris opens on a train somewhere in picturesque Europe. But this time the destination is not a budding romance. Marion (Delpy) and Jack (Goldberg) have been together for two years and are highly aware of each other’s faults. Their trip to Venice has been a disaster, as Delpy reveals in a quick-cut series of flashbacks that owes less to Linklater than Roger Avary (who directed the actress in 1994’s underrated Killing Zoe). Paris promises to be worse.
A highly tattooed New York interior decorator, Jack is a hypochondriac and neat freak; he’d like to wipe down the entire city with sanitizing gel. So it’s no surprise that he hates France and the French almost as much as it and they seem to hate him. The twist is that Marion, a photographer who now lives in New York, doesn’t like Paris that much herself. She can’t resist confronting “fascist” cab drivers and has a contentious relationship with her parents (played by Delpy’s actual mother and father, veteran actors Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy). The city teems with Marion’s ex-boyfriends, and though she’s happy to see most of them, she makes a terrible scene after spotting one in a cafe. As such episodes accumulate, Jack and Marion gradually switch roles, until he almost seems to be the reasonable one.
Nothing all that terrible happens. Marion’s wonderfully obnoxious dad taunts his potential son-in-law about his aversion to the French appetite for baby mammals; Jack suffers mold allergies, a pretentious party, and a group of American Da Vinci Codenbreakers. Also, he’s briefly arrested and barely avoids a burger-joint bombing. But the real source of Jack and Marion’s hysteria is their own relationship. They’re both too tightly wound to let any possible provocation slide, so the more mishaps they encounter, however trivial, the more inclined they are to believe that their affair is doomed. After a spat about sex, Marion falls asleep while Jack watches a classic movie that exemplifies his increasingly paranoid mood: M, Fritz Lang’s edgy account of the hunt for a child murderer.
Delpy, who also scored the film and can be heard singing with Nouvelle Vague on the soundtrack, clearly modeled aspects of Marion’s character on her own. She even cast her own cat in the film and named him Jean-Luc after Godard, who directed her in King Lear and Detective and encouraged her to become a filmmaker. And since Goldberg is a real-life ex, Delpy was able to draw on intimate details of his life and neuroses. The resulting characterizations are richly detailed and basically plausible, if clearly exaggerated for comic effect. Both Marion and Jack can be grating, but they’re never merely generic rom-com types.
Ultimately, though, the rom-com format hampers the film. Delpy sometimes gives the impression that she wanted to go further but decided to play it safe. The story needs more unexpected moments like the odd aside about an anti-globalist “fairy” (played by Good Bye, Lenin! star Daniel Brühl) who counsels Jack about love and fast food. Still, the movie is more pointed than most humorous tales of romantic mismatches, as well as most directorial debuts. For Marion and Jack, 2 Days in Paris is a trial. For Delpy, it’s a test she didn’t ace, but it’s earned her a chance to try again.