Back in 1995, Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise gave flesh to a Yank's fantasy of worldly European womanhood: Julie Delpy's Celine, a sprite who materialized on a passenger train for one sweet Viennese night of courtship and flirtation, as if willed from the fevered dreams above a thousand hostel beds. As one-night-with-a-French-chick fantasies go, Linklater's brief encounter was perfect for being exactly that. The lovers went their separate ways; even when they hooked up nine years later in Before Sunset, their time together (what we saw of it, before the director discreetly faded to black) was kept to a brisk 77 minutes — just long enough not to spoil the daydream with messy entanglement.
Delpy's zippy romantic comedy 2 Days in Paris, by contrast, is all entanglement — an alternate universe to Sunrise/Sunset's poignant roundelay. Where Linklater elided the relationship, writer-director-star Delpy skips the prelude. Romance is easy when you've got 12 hours in Vienna and the sky's lit by carnival lights. What happens when you've spent the past few days in Venice with explosive diarrhea and the next 48 hours brings only language barriers, close quarters with the parents, and a virtual Yellow Pages of ex-lovers?
The setup of Meet the Parents travels across cultures, Jewish panic subtext and all. The outsider here is New York interior designer Jack (Adam Goldberg), visiting the folks of his girlfriend, Marion (Delpy), for the first time. Looking as displaced in Paris as Elliott Gould in Chandler's Los Angeles, the scowling, bearded Goldberg is greeted first by gauche American "codebreakers" (as in Da Vinci) who want directions to the Louvre. He smiles helpfully while marching them off to the banlieues. What the hell; they probably voted for Bush. "You're so mean," Marion sighs — then coos, "You're so riiiight."
From there, the trip is a steady comedy of embarrassment — constricting condoms, in flagrante intrusions from Mom (Marie Pillet, Delpy's mother), a damning snapshot of Jack naked with helium balloons tied to his wang. "He's not like the morons you usually bring home," barks dad Jeannot (Albert Delpy, the director's father), sounding none too convinced. Worse, those previous morons are everywhere — an artist (Adan Jodorowsky, Alejandro's son) whose conversational icebreaker is as outré as his installations; an oily poet (Alex Nahon) who casually lets drop that he gave Marion her first orgasm. Jack isn't appeased when Marion says she lied to the poet to soothe his feelings — she told him the same thing. That's the rub, isn't it? Two classic male hang-ups in collision — the appeal of a woman with experience versus Thou Shalt Have No Other Fuckbuddies Before Me.
The fantasy of the City of Lights beckons; arrive and you also have to deal with the Paris of Le Pen and Arab profiling, as represented by a police encounter and a racist cabbie whom Marion engages in a verbal brawl while Jack winces in the back seat. Despite some wheezy jibes at Bush and the Iraq War, which sound as toothless as nods to Watergate in a Nixon-era sitcom, 2 Days in Paris restricts most of its topicality to Lubomir Bakchev's Nouvelle Vague-style location shooting, more evocative of the city in its leisurely traveling shots than most all of that recent cinematic "ode," Paris, Je T'aime.
As writer/director, Delpy makes some of the usual first-feature mistakes, mostly falling back on narration as a crutch — almost disastrously in the last section, when Jack and Marion are on the verge of breaking up and we want to hear what they're saying. But Delpy shows Linklater's influence in her willingness to let actors work and walk at length, and she has an unusually playful style for an actor turned filmmaker. She also scored the film as well as edited it; her puppyish timing has an impudence that recalls some of Truffaut's sight gags.
She all but hands the movie to her costar Goldberg, who captures how our loved ones go from endearing to unendurable all the way back to endearing. It may be Marion the photographer who narrates, showing us the view through her perforated retina — a kind of reverse Swiss-cheese cam — but it's Jack who gives the Paris trip its running commentary track of muttered worries, one-liners, and ugly-American wisecracks. (Hassled for wanting to see Jim Morrison's grave at Père-Lachaise, he deadpans an explanation: "I'm a huge Val Kilmer fan.") And with the dithery Marion playing off Jack's nattering nebbish of negativism, Delpy invokes the Woody Allen/Diane Keaton chemistry of the '70s as consciously as Allen referenced the European art movies of the '60s. I wonder where they will be in nine years.