Jean-Luc Godard first cast Julie Delpy in 1985, at age fourteen, in Détective, but many film-goers first met her in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s White as the nasty Parisienne hairdresser who turns soft behind prison bars with her unforgettable pantomime. Others met Delpy as Ethan Hawke’s neurotic object of desire in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (for which she was an Academy Award–nominated screenwriter) or, most recently, in her disarming comedy, 2 Days in Paris, in which she starred, and which she also scored and directed.
I talked to Delpy by phone from Paris, where she is doing postproduction on her new film, The Countess, out in 2009. The interview took place over the course of a few weeks, in French and English. At the time of the interview, Delpy was pregnant with a boy, and our conversation was often punctuated, and occasionally cut short, by contractions.
THE BELIEVER: Kenneth Turan says that Kieślowski was the world’s most accomplished director. Do you agree?
JULIE DELPY: I don’t know. I mean, Kieślowski I love. I loved working with him and I had a wonderful work relationship with him and then we stayed friends. He was very helpful. We talked a lot about writing and writing screenplays.
BLVR: Kieślowski influenced you as a writer, even when he was directing you.
JD: Krzysztof recommended that I leave Paris to go to film school in New York. He was very supportive of my wanting to write and direct. Which was unusual, because I find that some of the other directors I had worked with were not very into the idea that I would write or direct. They thought it was stupid and a waste of time and they were actually very negative. Krzysztof was actually extremely positive. So was Godard, actually.
BLVR: They were mentors.
JD: And very supportive. So I do love those two, particularly. There were other people that were supportive, like Volker Schlöndorff [director of Voyager, 1992]. So those people were very helpful, and Krzysztof and I spent a lot of time talking about writing and what his inspirations were in writing. I was always amazed that his inspiration came basically by observing people—in the streets and around him, his friends and family.
BLVR: With regard to 2 Days in Paris, a lot of people talked about the Woody Allen influence and your wearing the big glasses and directing yourself and the comedy involved. But to me, there’s so much Kieślowski and Godard in the work.
JD: Thank you.
BLVR: That sort of intense subjectivity, the study of Marion in 2 Days in Paris, is very Kieślowski. I always wondered what you guys would’ve done later had he not died so young.
JD: When I said he was very supportive, I really meant it. We had many, many meetings talking about writing: What writing was to him, and also directing. I think my influence is like a patchwork of different directors. Godard is definitely one. I would say Kieślowski is one, but at the same time I would never want to do a Kieślowski film. I’m not Kieślowski; I don’t have his talent and I will never be Kieślowski and it’s fine. I do what I can in my own way, but it’s true that he influenced me a lot. And then there are also certain methods of working I got from Richard Linklater—[particularly] the writing process.
II. SEEING FLAT
BLVR: Can you talk a little about your writing process?
JD: I’ve been writing since I was nine. I wrote my first screenplay when I was seventeen. Yeah, I’ve been writing for a long time. Writing is… sometimes it’s very easy and sometimes it’s super hard. It really depends. I wouldn’t say that there is one way of writing; sometimes you’re blocked for months and years and then everything comes out in three days. For me, I’m more like that, I’m kind of stuck for years sometimes, where I can’t get one idea out and then suddenly write. I usually write all my screenplays in a very short time. When I wrote Before Sunset—Ethan, Rick, and I worked on an outline first—I wrote a first draft; I wrote it in, like, five days, and then of course the guys and I worked some more on it, but the first draft was written very, very quickly. Same with The Countess, same with 2 Days in Paris.
BLVR: Do you think you have a distinct voice or point of view as a writer and a director? Can we identify a Delpy factor in those films that you choose to direct and write?
JD: I don’t know. [Both laugh.] It’s still a little early to say. “Yes, you know, I have the Delpy style.” I think it would be totally pretentious of me to imagine that. I’m totally new at directing and, you know, in a way I’m not new at writing, because I’ve been writing for years, but I’m new at writing things that will eventually become movies….
BLVR: Is it true that you have problems with your vision?
JD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have major problems everywhere actually. [Laughs] My sight has always been bad.
BLVR: Do you think you try and push further in directing because of that, or is there no relation?
JD: Well, you know, I see flat, it’s pretty simple. I see flat. I actually don’t have three-dimensional vision.
BLVR: You don’t have depth perception?
JD: No depth. So it’s not bad for making movies, actually, as long as it’s not holograms.
III. THE FRENCH
BLVR: All the French-American women I know who saw 2 Days in Paris were dying, it was so funny. We couldn’t believe it. I felt like you made it for us, the half-French, half-American woman.
JD: In a way, I made it for me, you know, because I am this hybrid of French and American culture, and I wanted to have fun with it and because the French-American thing just amuses me. When it doesn’t drive me insane, it actually amuses me.
BLVR: You left France in your teens and, in a way, you have the most crossover appeal of all the French actresses. You’re the most Californienne of the French actresses. How do you explain this? How have you managed to maintain the relationship between both cultures and remain entrenched in both? Because it’s not easy. There are many French actresses who do come to the States, but none have had your lengthy TV (we all forget that you were on ER, for example), Hollywood film, and indie repertoire.
JD: Well, I don’t really know. It’s true that I feel a bit half-and-half. I don’t feel fully French; I don’t feel fully American. Maybe I’m just in between. I was sixteen when I first came to the U.S., and I decided to study in New York for several years. So my adolescence and early adult years were very influenced by American culture, and I’ve had American boyfriends to fill in the blanks. I’ve had as many emotions in English in the U.S. as I’ve had in French. You know, there’s one thing I’m missing—the American childhood stuff. That’s why sometimes I don’t really relate to kid movies in America, or American kid culture.
BLVR: You have a cultural fluency and a linguistic fluency that they don’t have, because of your early New York experiences.
JD: I also adapt to cultures very quickly. I have to say it’s just my nature. Like if I’m in London for six months, I’ll pick up the accent. I’ll keep my French accent a little, and then I’ll…
BLVR: I heard you in an interview with a British interviewer and you took on the BBC British accent perfectly.
Another thing I love about 2 Days in Paris is the constant arguing. When my mother and I speak to each other in French, everyone thinks we’re angry, but it’s the French art of dialogue—it’s just the form of discourse, a necessary currency for survival and socialization.
JD: It’s constant, I know, the arguing. And the French hypocrisy is everywhere. It’s quite funny.
BLVR: Have you ever considered doing a French sitcom for TV?
JD: They don’t have anything of quality. The sitcom that I love the most in the U.S. is Curb Your Enthusiasm. I would say yes to being on that in a second. Sometimes I dream that I’m Larry David. [Laughs] It’s embarrassing. But seriously, I think he’s hilarious. I like when people are mean and I like the meanness and the crudeness and the political incorrectness. But, in France, you know, I don’t think they’re open to that. I don’t think they know how to do that yet. The new generation is ready.
IV. “FEMALE DIRECTING”
BLVR: You don’t just direct; you score the music, you cast, you write, you edit, etc..… Maybe this is reductive and simplistic, but do you feel like this is a post-postfeminist thing? Is this “female directing,” to be able to do all these things, as opposed to just a single role as a director? Is it a gender thing, or not all? Is it just you?
JD: I would love to only direct, but so far I have such a hard time financing my films that I’ve got to do it all, including acting.
BLVR: So you got funding only if you were the star of the film. That’s fascinating in itself, don’t you think?
JD: For The Countess, I had other actresses who wanted to do it, but their names weren’t big enough. Eventually, if I gain some stature as a director, I’ll be able to get actors attracted to work on films that I’m only directing.
BLVR: But do you want to continue to act and direct, or is directing where you want to be?
JD: No, I love acting. Maybe I wouldn’t do the two together all the time. I wouldn’t mind doing just one scene in a movie I direct.
BLVR: Directing someone else for a change.
JD: Exactly. I love directing people, and I like directing men, as well. I’d love to do a movie that’s more guy-oriented in a way. I tend to receive—because I’m a woman—all the girly stuff.
BLVR: I think it’s fascinating that only 7 percent of directors working on the highest-grossing films are women. It’s something that we can’t overlook when we think about you. How do you see yourself in the lineage of women filmmakers?
JD: Well, I don’t like to include myself in any group of any kind. I think it’s good and I totally support other women filmmakers. I think it’s more important that more women become directors. It’s just the nature of the business. I have to tell you how long it took me do my first film; it’s almost a joke. Even now I’m struggling to make my other films. I’m certain if I were a man, my life would be extremely different as a director. I would be making anything I want. I know this for a fact, because I have sent screenplays to people, to big companies, with a made-up guy’s name. And the response was very different.
BLVR: Like being George Sand.
JD: We’re still there. That’s the fucking problem. It’s a little less, and you can now make movies as a woman director, but it’s going to be ten times harder. There’s no doubt about it. A lot of people have doubts. It amazes me how when people read my scripts, like 2 Days in Paris, they were surprised. They were actually scared of the humor because it was not, uh, “cute,” and they expect a woman to be cutesy in some way.
BLVR: I read that your father said it was a true “feminist” movie. What do you think he meant by that?
JD: I think because I’m almost past the idea of feminism. First of all, I don’t hate men. [Laughs] It’s like I’ve been raised by two feminists, my dad even more than my mom, probably. In a way, I feel totally equal to men at every level. Maybe not on one level, like I can’t punch people in the face, but you know, big deal. [Laughs] Outside of that I do feel that I have the same will, the same drive, the same strengths, but it’s harder because you do constantly meet machoism.
BLVR: Wearing the heavy black-rimmed glasses in your film 2 Days in Paris caused a stir—and not just with the Woody Allen allusion. First, we now know you have impaired vision, so they were practical. [Laughter] For me it brought back a seminal feminist text from my post-structuralist college years which included an idea along the lines of “boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” In classic Hollywood, you always have to take the glasses off the woman, and then she becomes beautiful and then you can kiss her. So I thought in some ways you were taking a shot at that idea of feminine beauty and objectification as a director and actress.
JD: My character is not the opposite of an object. She actually objectifies men. The minute she is turned into an object she hates it. There’s that scene with the guy, the sculptor, who basically objectified her by making her into a sculpture, which is kind of outrageously ugly and ridiculous. Basically, she totally hates it. She’s not an object. Maybe it’s because I was raised by people who taught me really well, but I never thought of myself as being any different from any man, at any level. I was a total geek. I was a sci-fi fan—more than most guys.
BLVR: You still are, in a way.
JD: I am, I am still a sci-fi fan. I love sci-fi. I’m such a sci-fi fan it’s ridiculous. I read sci-fi books—I read sci-fi comic books. It’s not something you expect from a woman. The first film I wrote wasn’t a romantic comedy, but it’s expected for a woman to write a romantic comedy. That’s why my directorial debut was a romantic comedy. I was able to put more edgy stuff, and not too much cute, obvious romantic shit in it, and break certain rules of the romantic comedy.
V. THE COUNTESS
BLVR: Let’s talk about your next film, The Countess, which I understand is about Countess Bathory, who was historicized as a female Count Dracula. In terms of feminist film theory, the female vampire has always been understood as a feminist agent. Right?
JD: The Countess is not at all a vampire film, though: it’s a very realistic movie about a real historical figure. She’s more like a female Gilles de Rais, who tried to help Joan of Arc when she was accused of being a heretic—which we now know was probably bullshit. But he was demonized and it’s about demonization, but also about the condition of women. In a way, she’s a dark character. In some ways it is a feminist film, but also feminist because I’m saying that not all women are good.
When I hear some men say that all women are great, to me, that’s fake feminism. It’s like some people saying all black people are great—to me, that’s racism. It’s putting everything in one group. I think that’s true racism and true misogyny. In a way, not all women are great. I’ve worked with women at the beginning of my career that were the biggest bitches I’ve ever met in my life. I have respect for individuals, but I don’t put one person into a closed category. I believe that it’s important to become equal to a man at a social level in society eventually. We’re working toward that. That’s been the progress.
BLVR: So Countess Bathory wasn’t a vampire. Would you say she’s a feminist medieval icon?
JD: Countess Erzebet Bathory was a sixteenth-century Hungarian countess. She became obsessed with eternal youth and started bathing in virgins’ blood. It is said that she killed about four hundred girls. She was a very complex character, and at the end of film we don’t know if she murdered all those girls. What is important to me is that no matter what, she had the complexity that you don’t often see in female characters in movies.
If you study theater, the ultimate complex character is Hamlet. He’s kind but he’s nasty, he’s sane but he’s mad; he’s good but he’s bad. He has all the directions of human contradiction. Even Shakespeare, who was the most multidirectional character-writer there ever was, didn’t write many multidimensional women. The idea was to create a character who has the maximum multidimensional possibility, and to not make her good or bad or victim or master. In my film she ends up being a victim and not a victim. She’s also the torturer. I tried to create something that’s as complex as it can be. She’s a murderer at the same time that she’s a romantic.
BLVR: She’s portrayed as both a sadist and a masochist simultaneously?
JD: Well, no, not just a sadist and a masochist. She’s a sadist, a masochist, and a romantic as well. It’s not as simple as—and in a way it’s not far from—the idea of the Marquis de Sade.
BLVR: She’s sounds like an absolute Sadeian character.
JD: Sadism has been perverted. There’s no perversity if there’s no fragility. I wanted to make a movie that’s truly perverse, in the seventeenth-century sense of the term.
Maybe it won’t please everyone, because it’s about a kind of perversion, but in a way you never know, because 2 Days really pissed some people off, in a very aggressive way—some were revolted but most liked it—and it was successful in an indie kind of way. 2 Days in Paris is all about castration. The subtext is about the fear of men to be castrated by women who are strong. In a way the film talks about the penis constantly—it talks about how the cat has been fixed, the husband has been fixed, the dad has been fixed. So it’s all about the obsession for a man’s penis to be taken away from him if the woman takes over in the relationship. I don’t want to cut a man’s penis off. On the contrary, I’m very protective.